Duke celebrates 50 years of desegregation

Life Magazine - September 24, 1956
Life Magazine - September 24, 1956

Exhibit charts Duke's racial history

The history of Duke’s desegregation is becoming more eminent, but what came before and after? Showcased in the Rare Book Room Cases in Perkins Library, “The Road to Desegregation at Duke” chronicles the campus’ diversification when it admitted its first five black undergraduate students in 1962.

The exhibit begins with “Duke During Segregation,” starting with Julian Abele, the black architect who designed Duke’s campus and a West Union blueprint where the viewer can discern which rooms were designated as “Colored.” The only blacks present on Duke’s campus at the time were construction and staff workers, a fact noted along with particularly striking photographs of a segregated Christmas party.

While segregation was not a legally codified practice, it was the custom—the Divinity School was first to petition for desegregation in 1948 and Duke saw its first interracial basketball game in 1951, but until 1961, the Board of Trustees did not meet to make any developments.

“Desegregation didn’t just happen overnight,” said Valerie Gillispie, a university archivist who co-curated the exhibit. “It was first students, then faculty – a small but continuing policy change.”

The second display case, “The Long Process of Desegregation,” delves into the decades-long progression of blacks at Duke first as faculty, then Divinity and law students, then graduate and medical students, and finally as undergraduates. “The story didn’t end with desegregation, however,” said Gillispie, “So we wanted to look at what new things happened after.”

“After Desegregation: Finding a Voice” covers the remarkable student activism on campus: a “study-in” protesting a segregated country club, a spontaneous vigil for Martin Luther King, Jr. that doubled as a demonstration for fair workers’ pay, proposals for an African and African-American Studies program, and the Allen Building sit-in. The exhibit concludes in 1983 with the founding of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture.

“The Road to Desegregation at Duke” is a compelling three-display exhibit, informative and full of evocative photographs and documents. Starting in the 1920s and ending in the 1980s, it details the immense journey of desegregation and the influence and work of the black community to shape the university.

The exhibit runs until Mar. 3. More information and online exhibit available at http://exhibits.library.duke.edu/exhibits/show/desegregation.

—Kathy Zhou

Nasher collection challenges stereotypes

Even though most of the traffic in the Nasher leads to “Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters,” a smaller exhibit tucked away next to the visitor’s desk is the musuem’s newest installation, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first black undergraduates enrolled at Duke.

The collection spans many media—including painting, paper work and sculpture—and it represents a broad spectrum of artists with nationalities as varied as South African, Swiss and American.

Trevor Schoonmaker, Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Curator of Contemporary Art, said the selection of works from artists with diverse backgrounds was intentional.

“While the works are by mostly African-American artists to serve a collaborative purpose with the Duke anniversary, we always want to expand the dialogue to make it more inclusive and global,” Schoonmaker said. “Collecting works by artists of African descent is a priority for the Nasher, so many of the works recently acquired are a good fit with Duke’s anniversary.”

Many of the pieces directly challenge black stereotypes and provide a multifaceted answer to the question of what it means to be black. Kehinde Wiley’s Ivelaw III (Study) depicts a black man with a neutral expression flanked by bright flowers and scrolls of leaves. Motorcycle Riders by Henry Clay Anderson shows a young black couple perched on their custom-made motorcycle, highlighting the oft-forgotten presence of the black middle class that existed from the 1940s to the 1970s.

The obvious centerpiece of the installation is an 8-foot gold necklace with a CNN pendant. The necklace, created by Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, is a commentary on the 24-hour-news cycle that perpetuates hollow meaning and sensationalism. It is constructed from non-traditional materials including cardboard, foil, plastic and gold wrapping paper.

Schoonmaker said that although the range of works is certainly diverse, their physical placement in particular was a deliberate effort to spark conversation and draw comparison.

“Works by Radcliffe Bailey and Robert Pruitt, for example, are completely different from one another formally, but they both have a transcendent spiritual quality about them that speak to the ability and desire to transport oneself to a better place,” Schoonmaker said.

The exhibit will be on display at the Nasher Museum of Art until Apr. 21.

—Anna Koelsch

Frazier's photo series explores race, class

Levi’s advertisements proclaiming “Go Forth”; handwritten commentary that responds with “No Way.” Shady photographs of protestors holding signs that read “Healthcare, not Wealthcare.” Film footage of an elderly woman detailing her physical illness: these images don’t directly broadcast “Commemorating 50 Years of Black Students at Duke.”

But, then again, they’re not supposed to. LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photo exhibit Campaign for Braddock Hospital (Save Our Community Hospital), which debuted last year at the Whitney Museum Biennial and is currently on view in the Kreps Gallery on the main floor of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, is a small but powerful complement to Duke’s year-long celebration of racial integration at the University. It also stands alone as a complex meditation on community, industry and race.

“Because LaToya is relatively young, she’s bringing a radical new point of view and asking new questions about documentary work,” said Courtney Reid-Eaton, exhibitions director at the Center for Documentary Studies. “I think that also relates to the idea of the first black students to matriculate at Duke. I think that the conversations that people at Duke and in Durham have had about town-gown relationships are not that far removed from the issues she’s confronting in this particular piece.”

Braddock, Pennsylvania, a working-class suburb of Pittsburgh, is both Frazier’s hometown and the primary subject of her art. The eponymous hospital—a primary healthcare provider and employer for the town—serves as the series’ central conflict. Approximately half of Frazier’s photos depict citizens’ anger after the hospital’s controversial demolition in 2010. The other photos, excerpts from a Levi’s ad campaign shot in Braddock, are full of furious annotations that contradict the advertisements’ chipper tone.

One of the latter photos features the slogan “Everybody’s work is equally important,” rendered in all-caps across a sky of billowing clouds. Frazier has crossed out “is” in black pencil and asserted that the words are a misappropriation of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms. She finally adds a rejoinder beneath the ad: “If everyone’s work is equally important then why weren’t local residents and small businesses allowed a share in the profits from the demolition process of the aluminum, bricks, and windows from UPMC Braddock?” Statements like these represent a hypothetical dialogue between the townspeople of Braddock and big industry.

In effect, Frazier’s oeuvre, which also includes a video work featuring her own mother, presents and comments on the socioeconomic concerns of real, living, racially diverse people in the town of Braddock. Frazier argues that failing to engage with these concerns is not just irresponsible; it’s socially disastrous. “For me, in our country, race and class have always been conflated,” Reid-Eaton said. “[Frazier’s exhibit demonstrates] class is the contemporary race issue.”

Campaign for Braddock Hospital: Save Our Community Hospital is on view at the Center for Documentary Studies until Feb. 23. Frazier will give a talk at the Center on Tuesday, Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. There is a reception beforehand at 6 p.m.

—Michaela Dwyer

Life magazine photos examine inequality

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of black students at Duke is what would have been the 100th birthday of arts pioneer Gordon Parks. Though he helped found the still-running Essence magazine and was the first black artist to direct a major Hollywood film, Parks is best remembered for his work in photography. First working with the Farm Security Administration and later as Life magazine’s first black staff photographer, Parks used photographs as a weapons against inequality.

Housed in the one-room Lyndhurst Gallery at the Center for Documentary Studies, the exhibit is comprised predominantly of enlarged spreads from the 1956 issue of Life magazine where the photos were originally featured. The incorporation of the original text and advertisements that ran with Parks’ photographs provides fascinating context—alongside Parks’ photos of poverty in the Jim Crow South are advertisements (not one of which includes a black citizen) for luxury goods aimed at Life’s mostly white audience. The text of the article, with bold headers like “A Separate Way of Life,” highlights the way blacks went about their everyday lives despite the social and economic hardships imposed by segregation.

Parks’ photographs speak for themselves, though. His skill behind the lens is clear, and his portraits strike a balance between depressing and inspiring. One of the most powerful photographs captures kids playing in a muddy street as their neighborhood slowly erodes around them.

Noting that the black students who entered Duke in 1963 were likely familiar with Parks’ work, CDS Exhibitions Director Courtney Reid-Eaton said that Parks’ photographs are as relevant today as ever.

“It’s important for young Americans to understand that, not that long ago, it was truly unimaginable that we could have an African-American president,” Reid-Eaton wrote in an email. “Gordon Parks’ strong, persistent, visionary presence contributed to shaping the unimaginable into reality.”

The Restraints: Open and Hidden is on exhibit at the Center for Documentary Studies through Mar. 2.

—Matt Barnett


Share and discuss “Duke celebrates 50 years of desegregation” on social media.