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Re-appropriating history: White-washing the Takeover

This Saturday, to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Allen Building Takeover, Duke is holding an all-day commemoration of this pivotal moment in our institution's narrative. The Department of African and African American Studies, among others, will be hosting the event and have invited Black alumni from across the decades to honor the bravery of the students who took over the Allen Building that fateful February morning in ‘69. 

African Americans were first allowed to enter Duke’s classrooms in 1963 after the Board of Trustees voted for desegregation, partially in response to fear of potentially losing federal funding. The experience for the first Black students at Duke was, as expected, less than welcoming. Upon arriving on campus, they were faced with an institution and white student body still invested in maintaining as much of a segregated environment as possible. In light of the campus culture, black students organized amongst themselves to form the Afro-American Society, which later became the Black Student Alliance of today. Dissatisfied with Duke’s widespread discrimination, on February 13, 1969, Black students barricaded themselves in the Allen Building issuing a list of demands to former president Douglas Knight. While Duke now applauds these students’ activism by co-sponsoring a commemoration and housing an archival exhibit in Perkins Library, the response from the University in ‘69 was starkly different. The campus became a war zone after President Knight called in the Durham police, who arrived on campus armed with batons and tear gas, ready to expel the student occupiers through brute force. The students would eventually leave the Allen Building in a peaceful manner following an ultimatum issued by the administration.

Following the “campus turmoil,” white alumni quickly flooded Knight’s office with angry letters. Alumni complained about Black students’ unappreciative attitude and Knight’s perceived passivity. These students would later be found guilty of violating university regulations and be put on one year probation. However, their efforts were not in vain. The student occupiers proved to the University that black students were not to be seen as mere diversity props at a majority white university. Their brave actions paved the way for a number of non-white campus institutions we benefit from today, including the African and African American Studies Department and the Mary Lou Williams Center, as well as the diverse and somewhat less racist modern Duke. 

While honoring all the courageous students from ‘69 is long overdue, Duke still hasn’t reckoned fully with this past—or the student activism of the present, for that matter—in a meaningful way. A memorialization process in which Duke is able to treat the Allen Building Takeover as an archaic part of its institutional mythos—instead of a struggle against the innate white supremacy of the University itself—is an exploitation of these Black students’ experiences. While Duke will uplift the students from ‘69 and plaster the Allen building with shadow box photo sets, it also continues to targets student activists fighting for similar demands today. 

The issues that prompted the takeover—racism, labor exploitation and financial constraints—continue to plague Duke’s campus today. Yet, when current students speak out regarding these issues, they are met with threats of student conduct discipline, and will only have their efforts celebrated 50 years later. The shameful treatment of marginalized student activists by Duke remains hidden within dusty boxes in Rubenstein until enough time has passed, giving the university control over most of the narrative.

With each new first-year class at Duke, student activists have to re-educate their peers on our university’s history concerning labor and student activism. The legacy of student organizers at Duke is a long one. While all the causes that have been championed since the 60s have been valiant and worth the struggle, this longer timeline also serves as a reminder that many issues with the university are ingrained and systemic. Duke, as an institution, will never be capable of cultivating a large-scale re-imagining and will always be beholden to white supremacy and capitalism. While the campus has the capacity to change certain facets over time, it is often not guided by a moral compass, but rather financial and public relations pressure. 

Duke, like most universities, was not built to serve low income, Black, non-white, and LGBTQ+ students. When Duke opened its ivory gates in 1924, it welcomed a select few: well-heeled white students from segregated Southern schools. Accepting students outside this privileged class was only an afterthought in the minds of men like President Few and Edens, who were complicit in accepting Jim Crow. Despite the gains made—for which we are grateful—this university will always, first and foremost, cater to a select powerful class of individuals and monetary interests. 

However, this harsh truth is softened by the knowledge that the power of worker-student-faculty solidarity does incrementally change the university in ways that are meaningful. Student agitators have been responsible for numerous reforms at Duke, from increased minimum wage to a reversal on Duke’s proposed healthcare policy, these changes have profoundly impacted countless students in their time here, even if the roots of the issue still remain. The university will always be an entity that will punish and chide brave activists for living out the characteristics in Duke’s Community Standard, then whitewash them decades later; it is inescapable. Yet, despite this and all the overwhelming barriers marginalized students face every day, it is imperative that we continue to fight for ourselves, each other and the future regardless. Perhaps that is the unchanging contradiction within activism at Duke: a pressing obligation to struggle and fight even when this institution does not want or deserve your labor. The students that stormed the Allen building in 1969 knew this, and it’s our duty to commemorate them by remembering that as well.

This was written by The Chronicle's Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. 

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