“A white man is superior to a negro.”
What would you do if these words were etched in marble over the entrance to your freshman dorm? How would you feel about Duke? Would you stand for it because it had always been there? Would you insist the etching remain because of its historical value? Would you lazily allow it to remain because it’s not that bad? Or, if given the chance, would you replace these words with something else, something that is truly representative of the values and diversity of our school?
That quote is one of many from former North Carolina Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock, the same Aycock whose name adorns the dormitory on East Campus. The name Aycock was chosen for the dorm when it was constructed in 1914 because at the time, Aycock was seen as the “Education Governor,” credited with pioneering public education in the state of North Carolina and giving children access to public schools. Because of this legacy, Aycock’s name also adorns buildings at UNC-Chapel Hill and East Carolina University, in addition to a Charles B. Aycock High School in Wayne County, N.C.
But underneath the narrative of a progressive, education-minded governor lies an insidious history of white supremacy and racial subordination. During the Reconstruction Era when the South was decimated by the impacts of the Civil War, the federal government kept troops in southern states in order to ensure that racial harmony was maintained. But when President Rutherford B. Hayes pulled those troops out in 1877, most southern states quickly spiraled back into rigid systems of racial subordination and segregation.
But North Carolina was different. While the state certainly had a lasting legacy of racism, an overtly racist government did not reclaim the state immediately after Reconstruction. Instead, a Fusionist government, made by a coalition between poor white farmers and poor black farmers, took control of the state. Accordingly, by the late 1800s, North Carolina continued to have blacks who were elected to public office in select areas across the state.
Nowhere was this more visible than in Wilmington, which was at that time the largest city in the state due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. In Wilmington, a robust black community was thriving, with black-owned businesses featured on Main Street and a black newspaper—the Daily Record—published regularly. Additionally, black citizens held one-third of the elected positions on the city’s Board of Aldermen, and the municipal government heard the voices of the black community.
This coalition worked well for North Carolina’s working poor at the time, and the state was able to enact numerous progressive policies for the time—namely enfranchising poorer North Carolinians by lowering the property requirement that was necessary to vote. While these policies were beneficial to small farmers and textile mill workers, they were widely loathed by Aycock and the rest of North Carolina’s white gentry, who saw the policies as an attack on their economic control.
Accordingly, Aycock, along with the editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, Josephus Daniels and many other leaders across the state, decided to break up the Fusion movement by spearheading a white supremacist movement like North Carolina had never before seen. They believed that if they could drive a wedge between working-class white and black citizens through fanning the fires of racial hatred, they could regain control of the state.
And so they began their work, slandering local newspapers with advertisements and comics that depicted black men as rapists and trumpeted the threat of “negro rule” across the state. They formed white citizens’ organizations and state-wide white militias that worked to intimidate black citizens and discourage voting. These efforts culminated in the 1898 Wimington Massacre, which is widely considered by historians to be the only successful coup in American history. During the Wilmington Massacre, white men stormed the city and burned down the headquarters of the black newspaper, forcing black city council members to resign at gunpoint and killing at least 98 people—most of whom were black.
Following the massacre, anti-black violence swept across the state, effectively intimidating black voters away from the polls. And, in 1900, Charles B. Aycock was elected the governor of North Carolina.
In 1914, Aycock dormitory was named in his honor by Trinity College, the precursor to Duke University. It was not named because Aycock had any specific association with the school—he did not attend Duke, nor did he give money to construct the building. The dorm was simply named to honor Aycock’s legacy, which is why the name should change.
As a University, we cannot afford to accept history as something that is static, nor can we afford to gloss over the inconvenient truths of our own history as an institution. The reality is that for years and years, Duke was a university that condoned racism and racial exclusion. But times change, and, thankfully, our University has changed along with them. We are now an institution that throws its arms open wide to the world and all its people, and we owe it to ourselves and to our community to ensure that the names of our first-year residence halls welcome all students to Duke equally.
So what’s in a name? As it turns out, quite a lot.
Jacob Tobia is a Trinity senior and DSG vice president for equity and outreach. His column is the second installment in a semester-long series of biweekly columns written by members of Duke Student Government. Send Jacob a message on Twitter @DukeStudentGov.
Correction: A previous version of this column was incorrectly attributed to Stefani Jones, the president of Duke Student Government. The column has been updated with the correct attribution. The Chronicle sincerely regrets the error.