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Alumni reflect on a defining moment in Duke history

February 13, 1969 was in many ways a normal day.

The weather was typical of that time of year-cold and dry-and the campus was buzzing with students already planning their spring break excursions.

Nevertheless, Feb. 13, 1969 is remembered as one of the defining days in Duke's history.

Forty years ago today, approximately 50 to 75 black students entered the Allen Building, asked the three-person staff present to leave and took control of the building, which they renamed the Malcolm X Liberation School, according to past Chronicle accounts and library records. The students hoped to draw attention to inequitable treatment of the black community on campus and bring about change.

"Someone once said to me that the Allen Building [incident] gave Duke a soul," said Dr. Brenda Armstrong, Trinity '70, who was part of the protest and is now the director of admissions at the School of Medicine. "But I like to think it gave Duke back its soul."

The Allen Building incident was an explosion of racial frustration that had been building since 1963, when the first black undergraduates were admitted to the University. By the Spring of 1969, the total number of black undergraduates at Duke had increased from three in 1963 to just less than 100. The change in Duke's culture, however, was nonexistent, students at the time recalled.

"The overwhelming problem was that Duke admitted black students in small numbers, but nothing was done to accommodate us," said the Rev. William Turner '70, who is now a professor at the Divinity School. "It was like the administration said, 'We'll add a few dark faces, but everything stays the same.'"

Black students at Duke said they had no spaces to socialize. Spending too much time on campus meant being subject to racism and harassment, Turner said.

"If we were walking around campus at night, the campus police would stop us and ask for proof that we were Duke students. For proof that we 'belonged' here," he said.

To avoid being where they felt they were not wanted, many black students socialized off campus, Armstrong said. Whenever possible, they would make their way to North Carolina College at Durham-now North Carolina Central University-or to a local black church.

"The people in housekeeping and dining [at the University] would take us to church and open up their homes to us," Turner said. "They treated us like family."

Although Duke's black employees reached out to black students, Armstrong said both teachers and students often discriminated against her.

One incident that stands out in her mind is when a white student walked up to her and rubbed her face while she was using the sink in the bathroom. When Armstrong asked the young woman why she had touched her, she replied, "I've never been this close to a n-, and I wanted to see if the color rubbed off."

Alan Ray, Trinity '69, who was the editor of The Chronicle at the time, said he remembers a more inviting vibe on campus.

"The atmosphere was mostly cordial and friendly," Ray said. "Students were not overtly racist, but after a few years the black students became very separatist."

Despite the differing views on the amount of racism on campus, many students-black and white-felt that change was needed.

Prior to the takeover, the black student organization on campus-known then as the Afro-American Society-had been meeting with Duke officials for more than a year to discuss issues concerning black students. But little progress had been made, Armstrong said.

After careful consideration, Turner said the students decided more "radical" methods were needed to bring their concerns to administrators' attention. They packed into a rented van, drove up to the Allen Building door and enacted their plan, which had been in the works for months.

When news broke of what was taking place, classes were canceled and a large crowd formed outside.

"Across the campus, people were shocked that the black students felt so left out," Ray said.

Ray noted that The Chronicle, however, was well aware of the plight of the black students. This helped the paper get information on what was going on inside the Allen Building.

"The Chronicle news staff back then was radical and was sympathetic to the black students," Ray said. "The black students felt comfortable talking to us."

Over the course of the nine hours the students were barricaded inside the building's records office, the faculty were in a state of panic. After much deliberation, then-president Douglas Knight agreed to address the black students' 13 demands if they left the building. When the administrators' decision was announced, the students exited the building and walked off campus with the blacks from the community who had gathered to protect them, Turner said.

But as he was walking off campus, Turner said he saw police and guards gathering in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens.

"By the time the police and the national guard came in, they were ready to bust some heads," Turner noted. "They didn't know who was who and turned on the students outside even though the students who were actually in the Allen Building had left."

What ensued was a riot. Police used teargas and batons to disperse the crowd, forcing the administration to cancel classes for three days following the incident. Knight later resigned.

"I think it's safe to say it was handled poorly," Ray said. "There was an immediate outrage and disappointment with the police reaction. The reaction caused the students to be much more sympathetic to the black students."

The Board of Trustees blamed the paper for inciting the Allen Building incident because of the sympathy it showed to the black students, Ray said. At the time, The Chronicle was not independent of the University, and the Board held a vote on whether or not to continue funding the paper.

"It failed just by one vote," said Ray. "I think that would have set a bad precedent for censorship and control over the media at Duke."

For the students who were involved in the protest, the ordeal did not end when they left the Allen Building. There was a trial for those who were considered the leaders of the takeover, including Armstrong, she said.

"We considered [the sentence] a victory," she said. "It took the cloak of invisibility off of us and made people recognize who we are and that we deserve to be here."

Turner noted that the students who staged the protest have gone on to successful careers in medicine, law, the priesthood and academia. Both Armstrong and Turner said the experienced helped define who they are today.

"The Allen Building showed us that there was nothing we couldn't do," Armstrong said. "What it did was validate what our parents sent us to Duke to do. They sent us here to be the next generation of leaders. In many regards, we owed the Allen Building to them."


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