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Letter signed by 140 Duke history alumni calls for the Carr Building to be renamed

People's State of the University recently hosted a rally at the Carr Building on East Campus.
People's State of the University recently hosted a rally at the Carr Building on East Campus.

First came the history department. Then came Duke Student Government. 

Now, after nearly 150 history alumni also signed a document in support of renaming the Carr Building, the push has continued to gain momentum.

“All the faculty think it’s a good idea and all the alumni think it’s a good idea,” said Bryan Pitts, Ph.D '13 and one of the three alumni crucial in coordinating the Oct. 1 letter to Richard Riddell, senior vice president and secretary to the Board of Trustees. “The people who study in that building and are the people at Duke who are best equipped to study history—that seems to be a critical mass right there.”

Pitts, now associate director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Indiana University, searched far and wide to talk to history alumni with bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from the past 20 to 30 years, and some from further back. No one he or anyone else on his team spoke with was against changing the Carr Building’s name, he added.

Pitts said the team reached out to roughly 200 people and received 140 signatures, a number he said was significant given that he said the history department churns out just 10 to 12 Ph.D. students per year, roughly. 

The Carr Building, which now houses the history department, was named after Julian Carr, a “virulent white supremacist” who spoke at the dedication of the Silent Sam Statue that stood at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill until protesters toppled it in August

The tobacco magnate was unambiguously racist in that 1912 speech, boasting about “horsewhipp[ing] a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” because she “publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.” 

The building was named in 1930 for Carr, who donated Blackwell Park to Trinity College. This donation enabled the college that became Duke University in 1924 to move to Durham. 

Pitts said that Riddell acknowledged receipt of the letter, which denounced Carr and called for the building to be named after of Raymond Gavins, the first African American on Duke's history faculty. The history department and DSG also suggested using Gavins' name.

“The irony that we did this work in a building named for Julian Carr has long been uncomfortable,” the letter read. “It has now become unbearable.”

An ad-hoc committee will submit its recommendation regarding the building's name to President Vincent Price by Nov. 15. Price will then review the recommendation and make any amendments before it is funneled to the Board of Trustees for a final decision. 

In 2014, DSG also passed legislation in favor of changing Aycock Residence Hall's name. Six months later, its name was changed. The building—now East Residence Hall—was named after former North Carolina Gov. Charles Aycock, who had ties to white supremacy. 

Pitts, who began building the coalition of alumni around when The Chronicle reported in August that the history department filed a request to change the Carr Building’s name, said that Carr’s name does not reflect what Duke should be going forward. 

“Duke for a long time has profited from...and been a scion of the legacy of slavery and segregation in the South,” Pitts said. "We don’t name buildings after people in order to preserve our history, we name them after people because we admire them or respect them. It’s an expression of who we are—and it’s not who we want to be anymore.”

In recent years, debate has surged about the presence of Confederate monuments—and Durham has been at the forefront of these discussions. 

“The erection of Confederate monuments in the first quarter of the 20th century was part of a deliberate effort to obfuscate the past,” the letter reads. 

In August, Duke decided it would to leave the spot where a statue of Robert E. Lee once stood in front of Duke Chapel empty. A year before, protesters toppled the Durham Confederate Monument, which stood in front of the Durham County Administration Building on East Main Street. 

One alumnus who signed the letter, Kirsten Delegard—M.A. '94, Ph.D. ‘99 and now director of the Mapping Prejudice Project at the University of Minnesota—said she thinks America is at a crucial point in reckoning with its past. 

Some might argue that Carr’s contributions to Duke’s growth need to be recognized, but Delegard pushed back on the notion that Carr’s history had to be recognized on a building. 

“He can be recognized, but he doesn’t have to have his name on the building that houses the history department,” Delegard said. “It matters who we honor.”

That’s why the alumni recommended Gavins’ name grace the building at 1356 Campus Drive. 

The letter notes Gavins was a "key architect" of some of the history department's most important work. That included oral history projects, the Center for Documentary Studies and the Behind the Veil project, which all charted the black experience in North Carolina. 

“He was a giant in the field of history,” Delegard said. “He changed the field of history and our understanding of race in this country. I can’t think anyone better to honor.”

The letter says that Gavins’ greatest legacy at Duke was that he “refuted the legacy and narrative of white supremacy.” 

Waldo Martin Jr., Trinity '73, signed the letter and said Gavins inspired him to become a historian after he took what he said was the first African-American history class at Duke in 1970. Martin said that the the first half of the class—the part taught by Gavins—covered black history from African origins to the Civil War. 

Martin said that many of those in the class were those that agitated for the class. 

“It was an epiphany,” said Martin, now the Alexander F. and May T. Morrison professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Martin, who came from a historically black high school, said he found a place at a school that was “very, very white” at the time.  

“I saw myself in this class,” Martin said. “You look for yourself, and you don’t see yourself a lot.” 

Gavins was a “brilliant” professor who gave thoughtful lectures and was student-friendly, Martin said, but also knew how to push students. 

“He knew how to provide firm, piercing criticism with a gentle hand,” Martin said.  

After Duke, Martin earned his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley and came to be friends with Gavins. A native of Greensboro, N.C., Martin would come home several times a year and visited Gavins whenever he returned. Gavins was a real “people person,” Martin said, and grew up working class. Gavins would befriend everyone and was deeply invested in the local community, Martin said. 

A “regular person in a regular community” who did “great things,” Martin would be encouraged if Gavins’ name graced what is now the Carr Building. 

“It would make me feel much better about the institution,” Martin said. “It needs to do the right thing, especially about black people and people of color.”

The letter also argues that changing the name to honor Gavins would be a step in the right direction. 

“Renaming the Carr Building affirms history as the pursuit of truth about the past, in order to better understand the past and therefore build a better present and future, guided by role models like Dr. Raymond Gavins,” the letter reads. 

Read the full letter below.

Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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