This past weekend, hundreds of Duke alumni ranging from the Class of 2012 all the way back to the Class of 1967 converged on campus for their respective class reunions. They encountered a university that has evolved more than just physically since their graduation. Walking through the newly renovated West Union, they would have seen countless faces of color—Asian, black, Hispanic and interracial students—among the mosaic of people gathered to dine and converse within the building. This might not have been the case during their time at Duke.
Notably, the Class of 1967, Duke’s first integrated graduating class, had its 50th anniversary reunion this past weekend. It is hard to fathom that until five black freshmen enrolled at Duke in September of 1963, the university maintained a policy of prohibiting admission to African American students regardless of their academic ability. Quite often, as students at an elite, internationally well-regarded university, we forget the deep roots of institutional segregation that have plagued Duke’s past as a southern school. Duke’s early black undergraduates took leaps of faith when they matriculated to the school and began living on a campus that still flew Confederate flags and played Dixie during football games at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Those students paved the way for future students of color to enroll at Duke. Students of color have now moved from making up less than five percent of Duke’s Class of 1971 to nearly half of the undergraduate student body in 2017. Duke Student Government’s past three presidents have been students of color, as well as our last three elected Young Trustee representatives. For a historically white university, we have come a long way since the days when non-white students were actively excluded from the Duke experience. Those who argued in 1963 that Duke was being far too progressive in allowing “Negro” students to enroll at the university would now rightfully be seen as horrifyingly anachronistic.
Despite remarkable improvements though, Duke is not where it should be. On campus, acts of racism and prejudice continue to manifest themselves both sporadically and on a day to day basis, whether it be through the casual invitation for a racist academic to speak on campus or through homophobic death threats being scrawled on a freshman dorm room. Around campus and throughout the broader state of North Carolina, a law prohibiting local governments from passing non-discrimination ordinances remains in effect, the scar of a fight to dismantle HB2, a transphobic law we wrote treated many citizens like second-class persons.
Despite such obstacles to progress, Duke will undoubtedly be a markedly different and improved place in 2067 when the Class of 2017 converges upon the Gothic Wonderland for their own 50th anniversary class reunion. Certain cultural behaviors, physical appearances and social attitudes exhibited within Duke’s student body in 2067 might seem unfamiliar and “un-Duke” to those graduating this year, feelings that many alumni are likely experiencing now given how much the university and culture have evolved over the course of fifty years. However, as future alumni, we should keep an open mind concerning the visions and goals of Duke’s future students and administration in captaining what will, for all intents and purposes, be a different institution fifty years from now. Duke will grow and change long after we say goodbye to the campus and those that come after our graduation will continue legacies of paving the way to a better and brighter university just as we have.
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