There is no shortage of big names who have left a mark on Duke, and Thursday night, one of baseball's all-time greats added himself to the list.
Hank Aaron and his wife Billye visited the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke for the official naming of the Hank and Billye Suber Aaron Young Scholars Summer Research Program, sponsored by the University's Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity. The program—which has existed for three summers—gives students in eighth through 11th grade in Durham Public Schools the chance to learn from high-quality teachers and professors and do original research on social inequalities.
"I think about all the good things that happened to me in the 23 years that I had the chance to play baseball and the people that stood behind me, and my mother always told me that you've gone no place until you help your fellow man," Hank Aaron said. "I am so thrilled to have all these young people, not only standing behind me, but all over the world, that you can help direct them and have them going in the direction that you think is good for the country."
In a Hall of Fame career playing mostly for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, Aaron hit 755 home runs, a career record that stood until Barry Bonds surpassed him in 2007. After his retirement, Aaron became the director of player development and vice president of the Braves, which first linked him to Durham.
Before the Tampa Bay Rays joined the major leagues in 1998, the Durham Bulls were affiliated with the Braves, and Aaron often visited Durham to evaluate the young players in the organization for weeks at a time. During at least one of his visits, Mike Krzyzewski asked him to come to campus to talk to his men's basketball team.
"I used to come here and spend weeks and weeks here running through the school, trying to keep myself in halfway decent shape," Aaron said. "I just remember when I came here two or three times to run through the school, I got a chance to meet him, and he is quite a coach, not just because of the things they do on the basketball field but simply because of the way he carries himself."
Aaron was born and raised in Mobile, Ala., during the Jim Crow era in the Deep South, and his playing career in Atlanta coincided with the pivotal years of the Civil Rights Movement. Speaking next to Aaron at Thursday's press conference in the Nasher, former U.S. Rep., Mayor of Atlanta and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young credited Aaron with much of the progress his community made during that period.
"We have a lot of people who can blow off, and yet he did more for the South with his bat than he could have done with his mouth at that point, and it's all on the positive side," Young said. "You don't realize how good things are now, but we also have no idea how bad they were. Hank tells the story of his mother calling him when he's out in the field in field playing baseball, 'Henry, come on in here, get under the bed.' And they all got under the bed, and then the Klan rode by and she said, 'Alright, go on back out, finish your game.' That's where all this started."
But Aaron, who remains a vice president of the Braves at age 84, also took the opportunity to speak out about the relative lack of African-Americans in the major leagues today.
"When I got to the big leagues, there were at least about four black players on each team.... Nowadays, you'd be lucky if you have one," Aaron said. "I think that whenever we have an economic problem in this country, usually black people are the ones that suffer the most. We don't have a chance to come home, take our kids to schools to a level ground to play baseball. We come home, the wife either goes someplace to work or the father goes someplace to work, so we don't have a chance to do some of the things that we used to be able to do."
Other speakers at Thursday's two-hour program following the press conference included Billye Aaron, Duke President Vincent Price, Cook Center Director William Darity and Duke trustee Clarence Newsome, who was the first African-American to accept a football scholarship at Duke when he arrived in 1968.
The event coincided with the 50th anniversary of the silent vigil at Duke following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and also honored Cook's legacy with the launch of a book about him. Cook was the first African-American tenured professor at a predominantly white southern university when he accepted a job at Duke in 1966, and he died last May.
"We want badly to have our young people follow in the footsteps of a gentleman and a scholar, and that's what Sam Cook was," Billye Aaron said. "We've got to understand what we're up against. These young people can do that. They can do the research, they can write the papers and they can present the evidence. From that, hopefully, we can become a better place."