We are witnessing a moment in this country where people, young people in particular, are challenging the racial nostalgia of halls of higher learning. That is to say, as we raised our hands in classrooms, prodded projects further in study sessions and office hours, we at some point asked ourselves, who will we honor? Last Wednesday, students rallied to echo Duke history professors that Julian Carr, a pro-Confederate, should no longer be memorialized. It is with enthusiasm that I second the History faculty’s formal proposal to rename Carr Building after the late historian Raymond Gavins.
Oftentimes, we remember a figure for a singular contribution. And yet, with Gavins, we have a litany of them. His record is public, so I won’t exhaust them, but I will cite a few. He was the first Black professor in Duke’s History Department, and the second Black professor in the entire school. He played a key role in forming the Department of History’s Oral History Program. He served as the director for “Behind the Veil,” a collection of over 1,200 interviews that illuminated the manifold ways black Southerners navigated the Jim Crow South. In the tradition of John Hope Franklin and Samuel DuBois Cook, Gavins was Duke’s living beacon of scholar-activism, one who tirelessly worked to undermine the legacy of white supremacists like Carr.
But not only did Gavins make an indelible impact in his field; he also inspired and mentored hundreds of students, of whom I am one. I had the honor of being a student for two of his classes, “African-Americans since 1865,” and “Remembering Jim Crow.” His students were predominantly African-American. These were football players, student body presidents, African-American and African studies and history majors—all students who worked for the school more than it worked for them. We read Leon Litwack’s Trouble in Mind, and learned of the horror that blacks like tobacco farmer Charlie Holcombe faced. Holcombe was routinely cheated by his landlord, who overestimated the amount Holcombe owed him. His son, an alumnus of Greensboro’s Agricultural and Technical College, was murdered after trying to regain his father’s loads of tobacco.
But for every atrocity, we’d read books like James Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South. I remember crying while reading how poor Blacks scrounged the little earnings they had to match the payments for Rosenwald Schools—the over five thousand schools, shops and teachers homes built primarily for the education of Black American children in the South in the early 20th century. And so for all the cross-burnings, all the spitting at diner sit-ins, the acid thrown at Melba Pattillo Beats, one of the Little Rock Nine, by a white classmate who tried to blind her—for all the history of black struggle, Gavins kept teaching with a soft-spoken dignity that moved all of us. That moved me, a first-generation Mexican kid, to attend graduate school. And seeing him, I dissolved my fears that the academy is removed from people’s lives. For Gavins, this was his life’s work, to highlight not just black luminaries—the Franklins and Cooks—but lay folk, those citizens whose names are never plaqued, and yet whose oppressors remained engraved in university buildings: to mentor minority students, students who people like Carr saw only as labor.
Perhaps the best eulogy we can offer someone is to live out the ideals they fought for. Gavins’ recent passing offers this opportunity to, as a collective body, begin the protracted struggle of memorializing champions of change. And I am confident that if he could preach to us today, he’d remind all of us that school reform doesn’t just occur in boardrooms. It needs oversight, accountability and input from constituents. Amidst student activism, administrators always urge patience. Gavins would readily cite Dr. King’s comments on the white moderate, “who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”
Or as Duke’s vice president for public affairs reworded the King’s letter from Birmingham, “It should not be easy, or quick, or simple to make these kinds of decisions because they are very complicated and they involve looking at the past.” I would respond to the vice president, the Board of Trustees and all administrators with this humble observation: it is a great disrespect to expect students to excel in virtually every subject and sport imaginable, and yet refrain they apply that very same critical thinking in the buildings that house their intellectual growth.
Students should be encouraged to participate in their civic duty to reform, and if they aren’t, this is an unjust insulation of power. I implore students to create momentum for the History faculty’s request in as many ways possible: attend DSG meetings to propose legislation for more democratic processes of (re)naming buildings; spread the manifesto of Duke People’s State on Campus around campus and email administrators stating your support for the Gavins Building. In short, fight to make this cause an institutional priority. Fight for this as if were a burning bench. Fight for this Ray of Light.
Antonio Lopez is a Duke alum, T’ 16.