'Heinous racial epithet' written on sign at Mary Lou Williams Center two days before classes start

The sign that had a racial epithet scrawled on it is in the Flowers Building.
The sign that had a racial epithet scrawled on it is in the Flowers Building.

In an email to the Duke community Saturday afternoon, President Vincent Price wrote that "someone scrawled a heinous racial epithet" on a sign at the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture earlier Saturday. 

"Such a cowardly and hateful act has absolutely no place in our community," Price wrote. "While we can’t undo or unsee this painful assault on our right to live and study in a civil and respectful environment, we can and do promise that odious acts like this will be acknowledged and challenged at every opportunity, especially at a time when some seek deliberately to provoke hatred and distrust."

The incident comes two days before the start of fall classes.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, confirmed Saturday afternoon in an email that the slur used was "n*****." The slur was written on the part of the wall where the word "Black" typically appears in the name "Center for Black Culture."

This incident is under investigation, Schoenfeld stated.

"I regret that my early words to you in this new semester are marked with sadness and anger," Price wrote. "Let us use this moment to come together in support of our fellow students, faculty or staff who are so maligned; let us not allow provocateurs to sow among us discord or malice; let us reaffirm and act upon our commitments to inclusion, tolerance and respect. That is the Duke community we deserve and demand."

By 3:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon, a piece of blue paper had been taped over the epithet. The room the slur was written in is a foyer in the Flowers Building that does not require card access to enter. Vending machines and couches are also in the room.

The Student Affairs office oversees the Mary Lou Williams Center. In an email Saturday, Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, wrote that he did not have much to add to Price's "powerful and timely statement."

"The Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture serves both as a home for our Black/African-American students and a testament to Duke’s enduring commitment to diversity and inclusion," Moneta wrote. "We have no intention of letting any miscreants undermine our determination to be a socially just campus."

Senior Kristina Smith, president of Duke Student Government, addressed the impact of the incident occurring at the beginning of the academic year. 

"This is a truly devastating way to start the year, particularly for Black students and especially for Black first-years," Smith wrote to The Chronicle. "The administration, along with students and student groups, need to work incredibly hard this next coming week and school year to ensure that all Black students feel safe, comfortable, and welcome at this university."

The group People's State of the University formed last semester when it launched a protest at an alumni event Price was speaking at. One issue the group has pushed for is a standardized University policy on hate and bias incidents. Administrators announced in May they were opening discussions on the topic.

"Classes haven't even started yet and another instance of racist intimidation has shown itself on Duke's campus once again," the group wrote in a Facebook post about Saturday's incident. "How many more times do black students, faculty, and staff need to be targeted and threatened for administration to take action?"

At the end of the 2018 spring semester, a pair of racially-charged incidents occurred on campus. 

In April, the phrase "n***** lover" was written on the apartment door of a 300 Swift resident during the night. That incident occurred shortly after a student's Snapchat that used a racial epithet came to light through the Duke Memes for Gothicc Teens Facebook page.

Check back for updates to this developing story.

Ben Leonard and Bre Bradham contributed reporting.


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