Clarence Newsome, a three-time Duke alum, is bringing his long history confronting racial issues at Duke to his service as a member on the Board of Trustees.

Newsome has been involved with the University since Fall 1968, when he walked onto campus as a first-year football recruit. He earned his B.A. in religion in 1972, before earning a Master's in Divinity in 1975 and a Ph.D. in religion in 1982all from Duke. Newsome is the current president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, where he travels the country to advocate values of equality, activism and inclusive freedom.

“I came out of rural North Carolina to be one of the very first African-American athletes at the University,” Newsome said. "I chose not to be a wallflower. I took what I had been taught, through two years at a black high school and two years at a racially-mixed high school, and found a way to make a contribution to the life and culture of the school."

Confronting race on the gridiron

Newsome grew up in the small, northeastern North Carolina town of Ahoskie, where he was introduced to the concept of inequality and racial segregation at a young age. Attending a predominately African-American high school, he learned to play football on “what was essentially a great big yard of hard, compact dirt," he said. The mostly white school across town had multiple fields and well-maintained facilities.

Watching Duke football on TV made him a Blue Devils fan at a young age, he said, and when he was 13, he began to dream of playing for the school.

“It might seem hard to believe, because that was the first year that Duke admitted African-American students, but I didn’t know anything about that. I just saw them play football on TV,” he said. “I fell in love with the school, but never told nobody.”

In the spring of his junior year of high school, Duke reciprocated the interest. A football recruiter showed up in Ahoskie to lure Newsome to Durham, and despite offers from other schools, the young student athlete from Ahoskie became a Blue Devil.

During his tenure as an undergraduate, Newsome took full advantage of the opportunities available to him in Durham. He was recognized by the Atlantic Coast Conference twice for making the conference’s All-Academic Team while lettering in football and participating in theater groups on campus and activities in the Divinity School.

His classmates recognized his dedication to the school, choosing him to be the student commencement speaker at graduation in 1972, the first black student to do so.

Despite being invited to try out for the professional football team known at the time as the St. Louis Cardinals, Newsome decided to pursue a career in higher education by continuing his studies at the Divinity School.

“I finished in three and a half years, which enabled me to begin my Divinity School studies in the Spring of what normally would have been my senior year,” he said.

Activism and inclusiveness

During his time at the Divinity School, Newsome served as the acting dean of black affairs and oversaw the summer transitional program for incoming undergraduates, black and white, during the summer of 1974.

“I had a wonderful year working with entering students, but also working with faculty, staff and administrators to make sure that the campus atmosphere was wholesome, congenial, inspiring and encouraging,” Newsome said.

Inclusiveness and activism are values that Newsome has made central to his professional and personal life. One of his two adult daughters, Bree Newsome, is a civil rights activist well-known for scaling the flagpole in front of the South Carolina State House in 2015 to forcibly remove the Confederate Flag, which was at the center of a heated debate among state-level legislators.

Newsome takes a positive view of young people’s activism.

“My daughter is one of the leading activists in the nation right now," he said. "So long as it is done with the right kind of intentionality and focus to bring about positive change, then it is right on point."

Newsome was also involved in activism as part of the Allen Building takeover in 1969. 

In a statement to The Chronicle in February 1984, Newsome reflected on the events of the takeover, which had occurred exactly 15 years earlier.

“A lot of us are still wounded by the incident [being hit with tear gas when exiting the building],” he said. “The atmosphere of the time, though, made it necessary.”

Since then, there has been a paradigmatic shift in the focus of efforts toward inclusivity on campus. While acting dean of black affairs, he led task forces on getting more African-Americans both on campus and in leadership, he said.

“We now have more African-American senior level administrators at Duke than ever before," he said. "We are now at a point where we have to look more at the ethos of campus life, and we have to look at the nature of our overall culture.”

Newsome continues his activism work as president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. The NURFC is a museum dedicated to preserving the history of underground railroad and promoting a philosophy of “inclusive freedom”—a key value that Newsome hopes to encourage on Duke’s campus from his role on the University's Board.

Joining the Board

Newsome joined the Board of Trustees in 2002, following a prestigious career in higher education as a professor at the Divinity School, dean of Howard University's Divinity School and the president of Shaw University.

He now serves on the Board's Undergraduate Education Committee and the Committee on Human Resources. Newsome’s service on the Board will conclude in 2019, following 17 years of continuous service to the University in that capacity.

“My role is to participate along with others in making sure that the policies of the University are sound and are being implemented correctly for the advancement of the mission of the University, and to make sure that resources are available for faculty, students and staff,” he said.

As for how students can promote positive change on campus, Newsome said that one of the most important factors is intentional involvement. He attributes his own success at encouraging campus inclusivity to this intentionality.

“I wasn’t content on just finding what was, I was intent on creating something new that would complement the character of the campus," he said. "I was going to be free on Duke’s campus, and I wasn’t going to worry about Duke receiving me because I was going to participate in the process of Duke not only accepting me, but claiming me as one of its own.”