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Bass Connections report recommends that Duke should engage with its history, ties to slavery

Before Duke became "Duke"—before it had a towering Chapel, labyrinth floors of expansive libraries or five basketball national championships—it was Trinity College in Randolph County. 

And at Trinity College, worked George Wall.

Wall, a former slave, was hired at the school in 1870 as a fourteen-year-old boy by then-President Braxton Craven. He was a janitor and bell-ringer, and when Trinity relocated to Durham County at the behest of the Dukes, Wall went with it. His son, George Frank Wall, grew up helping his father clean and later worked in a dining hall at the school.

Although a quadrangle on West Campus is named after Craven, you won’t find a memorial to George or his son on Duke’s campus. It’s stories like these on which a report and website released today seek to shed light—stories like the labor of George Wall and the complex racial history of Braxton Craven—and how Duke has memorialized the work of white men more often than other groups.

The 100-page report, titled “Activating History for Justice at Duke,” was compiled by a Bass Connections team called Constructing Memory at Duke under the aegis of Robin Kirk, co-chair of Duke Human Rights Center. By analyzing 327 sites throughout Duke’s campus, the group exposes the narratives of what stories Duke has chosen to memorialize. Through a story bank, the team aims to make more diverse parts of Duke history accessible to the public, and the students recommend specific sites and stories for Duke to create. 

In addition to being released so closely to Duke’s fifty-year anniversary of the Silent Vigil, the report also comes out on a week where the national dialogue about memory is again being brought to the foreground of conversation. A controversial statue of a doctor who performed experiments on enslaved women was recently removed from Central Park and Princeton University announced Tuesday that it will name two prominent places on campus for enslaved people.

Kirk said that the idea for the project came from her human rights work and that the team hopes the report helps community members learn about Duke’s history and start conversations about their recommendations.

“But I'd like to point out that our report is unique. Along with Duke's ties to slavery, we also take on Duke's ties to white supremacy and discrimination in the 20th century. We also wanted to show what our campus could be, with new sites and initiatives that address the past and also lift up other forebears,” she wrote in an email. “Ultimately, we lay out a profoundly hopeful vision for what our campus could be.”

By the Numbers

The group of students involved in the project digitally mapped and categorized a total of 327 sites. Senior Helen Yu, a member of the Bass Connections team who was heavily involved with the digital mapping and data analysis, noted that even that is not a complete survey.

“What we have is a snapshot. It’s not at all comprehensive and is temporally dependent,” she said. “But a snapshot does tell you things.”

According to the report, 202 of those sites recognize men and 47 recognize women, with the other 78 recognizing combined groups. Only two were categorized as recognizing LGBTQ+ individuals, and most represented either donors—111—or faculty—129. Only eight sites represented staff members, and only nine represented international individuals. 

The sites also overwhelmingly represent white people. White individuals were recognized by 231 of the sites, while the people’s color in 71 sites was unknown. Only 15 sites represented black people, four represented Asian people and one represented an American Indian. The other five sites were broadly categorized under “people of color.” 

Yu noted the report is not meant to be a knock on the memorials Duke does have, but rather a call for more.

“We just need more,” Yu said. “A lot more.”

The stories left untold

Although the data captures the blunt force of the report, a majority of its pages and a core part of its mission is offering an accessible version of the stories not told by the memory sites currently on Duke’s campus. 

The report tells the story of Caroline, the slave Washington Duke bought in 1855 for $601, and how both Duke and Julian Carr—who donated the land East Campus is built on and is the namesake of the Carr Building on that campus—were Confederate veterans. Unlike Carr, Duke joined the Republican party, which politically pitted him against Democrats like Craven, Carr and John Franklin Crowell, who became president of the institution in 1887.

It also points out “history deserts”—spaces that are not being utilized to share history or art—like Central Campus and the new mega-dorm on East. 

The story bank portion of the report presents more than two dozen short histories, including passages on the workers in Duke’s tobacco warehouses and about the Ku Klux Klan murders in Greensboro that included among the dead two individuals with ties to Duke. 

It also tells the story of the “Secret Game” in 1944, when the Medical School’s all-white intramural basketball team was beaten 88-44 by what would later become known as North Carolina Central University. 

Junior Mary Aline Fertin, a member of the Bass Connections team, said that one of the stories that stood out to her was that of Mary, Persis and Theresa Giles.

“They were some incredible women. They took classes at Trinity College before it became a women’s school,” Fertin said. “They enrolled unofficially, paid their own tuition and worked as teachers on the side.”

Mumbi Kanyogo, who is also a junior and a member of the team, said she found Duke’s treatment of LGBTQ+ students—specifically the Duke University Police arresting more than 60 individuals who were profiled as gay—and Native Americans the most surprising in a negative way, but on the flip-side was happily surprised by the rich history of student activism.

In addition to the story bank, the report also recommends specific new proposed sites for the University to consider creating. 

A mosaic in the Divinity School would tell the story of Duke’s first labor union. A statue dedicated to Caroline would tell the story of Washington Duke’s slave. A globe held up by a hand at the Bryan Center plaza would represent the controversy that stemmed from a Chronicle ad in 2001. Five statues of the first five black students to matriculate at Duke in Craven quad and a “speaker’s circle” in front of the Allen Building are also proposed, along with pillars on East Campus to honor the Giles sisters and a bulletin board exhibit in the Brodhead Center to recognize Student Action with Farmworkers. Finally, a plaque in Hudson Hall would recognize Duke’s first female engineering students.

“The first thing I want the Duke community to do is to kind of take on an intentional commitment to look at whose stories we are telling and how,” Fertin said.

Administrative and community response

Some administrators and student groups had drafts of the report shared with them prior to its release. 

Provost Sally Kornbluth wrote in an email that the report represents the impact Bass Connections projects can have outside of the classroom, and commended the students for their work. She said the report provides important foundational information to be used as changes are considered.

"The report is thoughtful and offers multiple avenues for future discussion," she wrote. "The recommendations will be given serious consideration."

Don Taylor, professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy and chair of Academic Council, noted the value of an academic approach to the issue. 

“I enjoyed reading the draft and learned a lot from it. We need to better understand our past so that we can discuss what it means for us today—Duke, Durham, North Carolina and the South,” Taylor wrote in an email. “The best way for us to proceed is as scholars, with faculty and students joined together in this enterprise.”

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, noted that Duke evolved from a succession of very different institutions in a part of the country that has seen significant changes over time.

“The University has sought to identity and illuminate those histories over the years, and this report is an important contribution to that work,” he wrote in an email. “With the Commission on Memory and History, President Price has encouraged an ongoing community-wide deliberation on these matters that will be greatly informed by what the students have brought to light.”

Some student leaders and groups were also shown the report, including senior Elizabeth Barahona. She wrote in an email that the report, like recent student protests, is an active reminder that the Duke community must continue working at providing adequate resources for those in the community and honoring the students, staff and faculty that have improved Duke.

She wrote in an email that it’s important to consider memorials like statues and building names in the context of their history. 

“The fact that we have memorials at Duke that publicly honor and/or celebrate white supremacists is shameful of the university administration,” she wrote. “Even more shameful, is that we see these statues and say these names every day without even knowing their history.”

Yu said the team spent lots of time studying the effects of remembering traumas and the uglier sides of institutional histories. She added that she hopes the report results in tangible outcomes—“physical things in prominent places that rival the story being told now”—and wants to see more of an institutional emphasis on history to make it accessible.

“Memory is not an objective thing,” Yu said. “And it’s not a monolith either.”

See the full report here:

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