Panel reflects on Bassett Affair

One hundred years ago, a young Trinity College would not have permitted a black man to share the stage with two fellow academics. Monday, however, a thoroughly modernized institution celebrated the centennial of the John Spencer Bassett Affair with reflections from three of its preeminent scholars.

Professor Emeritus of History Robert Durden, English Professor Houston Baker and Dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences William Chafe discussed Bassett's relationship with Trinity College, his perspective on Booker T. Washington and the affair's effect on academic freedom at the University, respectively.

The Bassett Affair, which has come to symbolize the push for academic freedom at the University, hinged on a decision by the Board of Trustees to refuse Bassett's resignation, despite calls from the community for his termination. Bassett set off the controversy when he declared Washington the second-greatest man born in the last 100 years in the South, second only to General Robert E. Lee.

"There have been a number of proud moments in Duke's history and all of these moments of pride go back to 1903," Chafe said of the board's decision.

While students and faculty stood behind Bassett, his opinion was not well-received by the community at large.

"It's hard to understand from the vantage point of the 21st century, but they perceived Bassett as a traitor to the Southern way of life, a heretic," Durden said.

Durden added that the Duke family, which was influential in the school's governance but had not yet endowed the University, probably did not realize the significance of the trustees' decision. "It's very doubtful that the Dukes knew a darn thing about academic freedom," he said.

Although the affair broadened to a question about academic freedom, its origins in Bassett's comparison of Washington to Lee may have been more accurate than the professor's contemporaries realized. Baker explained that while Washington was well-known as a black leader, his work contributed little to the struggle for racial equality at the time.

"Booker T. effectively shut down the life-enhancing aspects of the lives of blacks in the South," Baker said. "One might say Booker T. completed the work of Lee and in that, Bassett might have been right."

He shared an example of Washington's attitude: "It is better [for a black person] to earn a dollar in the field than spend a dollar in the opera house," Baker quoted Washington to his audience.

Chafe noted that Bassett, despite his unpopular views, broke important ground in recognizing race as the key political issue in the country at the time.

"Although John Spencer Bassett held many of the racist beliefs of his white peers, he also recognized the degree to which race was central to the American life," he said.

John Spencer Bassett and the Bassett Affair's contributions to the University are still clear, said President Nan Keohane, who attended the panel discussion. "We have a wonderful opportunity during this important week to celebrate the fact that Trinity College did take a big stand," she said.

Despite the significance of the event, the audience of 150 included few students. Those who did attend recognized the importance of a continued awareness of academic freedom.

"I think academic freedom is taken for granted now and this is a way to learn about and appreciate it," sophomore Sarah Bennett said.

Undergraduates may not realize the far-reaching effects of the affair, which established a precedent for the relationship between academia and First Amendment rights, Chafe said.

"Trinity College provided a beacon of pride and discourse on freedom of speech," he said. "It had set a standard which defined what [academic freedom] is all about."

With the same conviction that kept Bassett at Duke, the panelists encouraged their audience to reaffirm the commitment to open academic discourse that marked the historic decision.

"With the Bassett Affair as the precedent, let us find the same boldness, courage and integrity that our predecessor displayed more than a century ago," Chafe said.


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