More than 200 black undergraduate and graduate students gathered in the Trent Semans Center Wednesday night for Duke’s first ever Black Convocation.
At the ceremony—which was organized and hosted by the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture—a procession of student representatives and campus leaders welcomed the Class of 2019. The speakers discussed issues black students face today as well as the importance of inclusion and celebration of their community.
Featured speakers included Black Student Alliance President Henry Washington, a junior, Seth Pearson, president of the Black Graduate and Professional Student Association and Zoila Airall, associate vice president of student affairs for campus life.
“We wanted to give something to the students that would allow them to have inspiration for the year—a gathering without protests,” said Sean Palmer, assistant director of the Mary Lou Williams Center.
The ceremony paid homage to Maya Angelou with a presentation of her poem entitled “Still I Rise” and to Pan-African traditions with recitations of a Sudanese proverb in 11 different languages. More than 30 student representatives from various academic organizations, advocacy groups and Greek life were also present to help introduce new students to activities on campus.
“I really appreciate events like this because I can feel the presence of the African-American community here at Duke,” said freshman Mikhal Kidane. “I wasn’t really aware of all the groups they have here. This is really amazing.”
Washington spoke on the inequalities and discrimination that students still face on campus, citing incidents from the noose hung on the plaza last year to national court cases involving police brutality.
“I implore you to celebrate your blackness whenever and wherever you can, ever honor the struggle of those who came before you,” he said.
Chandra Guinn, director of the Mary Lou Williams Center, noted that there were 45 total black undergraduate and graduates at Duke in 1970, but 1,333 black students last year. She added that numerous African-American leaders in the University’s administration today, such as Airall, serve as resources and role models for students’ paths to success.
“Tonight has been a very important night, as the beginning of the 2015-16 year. There will always be ups and downs but you know you will be together,” Airall said.
Quinn also described the upcoming year’s featured events, including a workshop with #BlackLivesMatter founders as well as a national conference on civil rights. The purpose of holding Black Convocation was to pilot this event for next year when they hope to invite more colleagues, alumni and faculty, and to encourage student involvement in the black community on campus, she explained.
“I thought it was great to bring together so many different areas of black life at Duke,” senior Lily Zerihun said. “I feel like there are not a lot of times we’re all able to come together and engage with other people who identify as black. We cross over a lot of different areas—African affinity groups, dance groups, living groups—so it was really cool to just see everyone in one place.”
Abigail Xie contributed reporting.
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