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MLWC, Duke celebrate '20/40'

An extraordinary coincidence of anniversaries pertaining to African Americans and the University has spurred a series of events and commemorations known as the 20/40 Celebration, which will take place throughout the fall.

The anniversary's numeric moniker comes from the founding of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture 20 years ago and the arrival of the first five black undergraduates at the University 40 years ago. Other events being celebrated this fall are the respective 100th anniversaries of the publication of W.E.B. Dubois's seminal text, The Souls of Black Folk, and the Bassett Affair, an affirmation of Duke's academic freedom in which a professor was challenged for expressing tolerant and progressive opinions about African Americans but was ultimately retained.

The Mary Lou Williams Center has planned several months' worth of music, speakers and special events to honor the progress of the past 20, 40 and 100 years.

"We often think of these kinds of commemorative days and dates only in terms of how long it's been since African Americans have been on campus and in terms of the struggle of protest, but this marker is a time for us to reflect on how African Americans have changed this campus in a positive way," said Vice President for Institutional Equity Benjamin Reese. "I see this not as much as a celebration of protest and struggle, but as a commemoration of a contribution."

Among the highlights of the celebration are an upcoming talk by noted scholar and critic Houston Baker on the life of Booker T. Washington and "A Prayer for Peace," a mass written by Mary Lou Williams herself that was performed Sept. 21 at Duke Chapel.

"It was one of the most beautiful concerts I've ever been a part of," said Leon Dunkley, director of the Mary Lou Williams Center. "I really, really, just really thought it was a blessing."

Dunkley said the center's schedule of events are only a "skeleton" around which students have planned their own commemoration of the past. For example, he said, students organized a showing and discussion of both Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and the Spike Lee film Four Little Girls, about the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church.

Each anniversary is celebrated for its own unique importance. The Mary Lou Williams Center, which was recently designated to move into a high-profile location overlooking the Bryan Center walkway, has built a formidable reputation over the last 20 years.

"It's really provided a venue for the expression of aspects of black culture and art in a way that has brought all people into the venue," Reese said. "By that I mean it's created an opportunity for what often is non-mainstream art and culture to be appreciated by all students and staff and faculty."

Dunkley said the anniversary of the arrival of the first black students 40 years ago should be celebrated but also examined closely. "It's important to see there were nine years between 1954 and 1963, between when the courts said segregation in the schools was inherently unequal... and when Duke decided to admit the first five African Americans in 1963," he said. "What was going on in our culture that we were slow to respond to in that way?"

The Bassett Affair is viewed by many as one of the most important events in the University's history. Dunkley said the life of John Spencer Bassett, the professor whose work was questioned but ultimately condoned on grounds of academic freedom, will be explored through dormitory programming and also through a dramatic revisiting Dec. 2.

"It's one of the most important landmarks in the past 100 years of this University," President Nan Keohane said. "I don't think any of us would be here today if the Bassett Affair hadn't gone the way it did."

In the 20, 40 and 100 years since these critical steps in the development of African American life at the University, the University has undergone dramatic transformations. Dunkley also pointed, however, to the underlying reality that racism has not vanished despite the University's advancement toward a more diverse and tolerant community. "Racism shapes our world," Dunkley said, "so no one of us are free, and when we think we are, we might be surprised sometimes."

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