An Affair to Remember

They pressed their ears up to the grates on the roof, squirming to hear anything from the meeting below. Finally at three a.m., the chair of the Board of Trustees of the then-fledgling Trinity College gave his sign. What the 300 young men of the small Methodist institution did not know, as they danced around the bonfire on the quad now known as East Campus, was that their school's decision would put it on the map. Now, 100 years later, Duke University celebrates this week with a vigil, ceremony and lectures about the legacy of the fateful Dec. 2, 1903, refusal to accept the resignation of John Spencer Bassett and his significance to the University.

Bassett was

a well-liked professor, head of the honor society and someone who encouraged his students to think independently and publish. It was Bassett's love of sharing intellectual thought that led him to establish in 1901 a journal focusing on current events, The South Atlantic Quarterly.

 In the October 1903 issue of the Quarterly, Bassett wrote an article, "Stirring Up the Fires of Racial Antipathy," in which he described Booker T. Washington as the "greatest man, save General Lee" born in the last 100 years in the South. Controversy erupted and families, clergy and political figures all urged Trinity to force Bassett out.

 Bassett did just that himself--he resigned. However, before he could leave Durham, the Trustees met under the guidance of President John Carlisle Kilgo, sealing his fate by voting 18 to seven to reject his resignation.

 "If the Board of Trustees had accepted the resignation, then all of the faculty were going to resign as well," said Tim Pyatt, University archivist. "It could have been really disastrous for the college--if truly all of the faculty and the president had resigned it could have killed the school."

 Bassett did not leave and in fact built a house, which still stands at 401 N. Buchanan Boulevard, as a sign of local commitment. He stayed for three more years at Trinity.

 "[The Bassett Affair] has remained a kind of foundation for our institution and has had a lot of impact at Duke," said John Burness, senior vice president of public affairs and government relations. Pyatt agrees. "It was more of a turning point than the Trustees knew," he said.

 Although the students and trustees may not have recognized the situation's significance at the time, the event would soon garner national attention. President Theodore Roosevelt visited Durham in 1905 and, in a speech on East Campus, commended Trinity College for their handling of the Bassett Affair.

 "You stand for academic freedom... and to give to others the largest library in seeking after the truth," Roosevelt said. Now, Bassett's name--and the "Bassett Affair"--are synonymous with academic freedom.

 "[The Bassett Affair] sent a signal that this place was an institution that would protect its faculty," Burness said. Without the Bassett Affair, the University may not have been the school it is today, Pyatt said. "We could be one of these religious, fundamentalist schools where there's not much leeway on what students can write," he said.

 To commemorate the significance of the Board of Trustees' decision and the Bassett Affair there will be two lectures today sponsored by the Franklin Humanities Institute and the department of history as well as a vigil and bell ringing. Other events are scheduled throughout the week, including the John Spencer Bassett lecture on Dec. 4 by William Van Alstyne, the William R. and Thomas C. Perkins Professor of Law. Additionally, the Trinity College bell--which Burness said is "an old bell that is locked up on East Campus and is rarely rung"--will ring 100 times in coordination with the Chapel carillon at 6 p.m. to commemorate the event tonight.


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