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'We're the enemy': An oral history of the Allen Building Takeover, part 3

Tear gas scatters the onlookers and supporters outside of Allen Building. Courtesy of Durham Civil Rights Heritage Project (The Herald Sun).
Tear gas scatters the onlookers and supporters outside of Allen Building. Courtesy of Durham Civil Rights Heritage Project (The Herald Sun).

Editor's Note: This story is part three of a four-part oral history of the 1969 Allen Building Takeover. Read part one here and part two here

On February 13, 1969, approximately 60 Duke students occupied the first floor of the Allen Building to protest the University’s failure to meet the needs of black students. Their demands included the creation of a Department of “Afro-American” Studies, increased enrollment and financial support for black students and a black student union. Protesters remained in the building until after 5:00 p.m, when their exit ignited a clash on the main quad in front of Perkins Library between students gathered outside and police.

No two protesters experienced that dayor the months and years that followedthe same way. Over time, the protest has been absorbed into Duke’s history—there was an official commemoration on the 50th anniversary. Beyond public recognition, however, the memories and lessons of that day remain deeply personal for many of the protesters, whose lives were changed by the act of resistance, the risk of violent force and potential retaliation from the university.

From original interviews, testimony at panel events and archival material, we have compiled personal stories of the 1969 Allen Building Takeoverin the words of those who were there. Some statements have been edited for length and clarity.

'We're the enemy'

After the Allen Building occupants departed, law enforcement officers found the building empty and soon exited onto the main quad, where more than 1,000 students had gathered. Some 70 Durham city police officers, 25 highway patrolmen, and 12 Durham County sheriff's deputies began using tear gas and making arrests, with National Guard troops on standby off campus. 

Forty-five people, two of whom were police officers, were reportedly treated in the emergency room at Duke Hospital for injuries ranging from inhalation of tear gas to second-degree burns, head wounds and separated knees and elbows. This violent clash lasted nearly 90 minutes.

Michael LeBlanc (Trinity ‘71): They were throwing tear gas and coming through literally as we were walking out, but there were also people out front. The Caucasian students...if they had not linked arms to protect us...we might be here, but I don't know if all of our limbs would be working the same way.

Michael McBride (Trinity ‘71, former chairman of Afro-American Society): Some of us went to Canterbury Hall across the street.

Janice Williams (Trinity ‘72):  We went up to the third floor of Canterbury and we were able to go into rooms and look out the window at the Allen Building and watch the guards come up out of the Gardens... When they came out, a couple of the students heckled them. They laughed at them, and said "a-ha-ha-ha-ha" and threw spitballs. When they threw those spitballs, the guards went crazy. They threw the tear gas canisters and they were ready to fight.

McBride: I might have felt good that [the white students] got tear-gassed, I really don’t know. Good in the sense that they see that the authorities don’t care about them so much either. They can see that their skin won’t protect them from the man.

Reed Kramer (Trinity ‘69): We'd been in protests, but we didn't have the experience of police coming on campus. So we didn't know what counter-measures we could take, so we just showed up and we got more and more people out there while the negotiations were going on. Eventually, the black students came out of the building and left, basically, so a lot of the tear gas was directed at us. We ended up in the Chapel, and the tear gas came in there, too.

Wade Norris (Trinity ‘69, Law School ‘74, former president of Associated Students of Duke University), as quoted in The Chronicle: Police were there with all their riot gear on. It looked like something out of the 21st century. People at Duke had never seen anything like that before. If anything would have been a greater magnet for the anger and aggression of the students, they would have needed big neon signs saying, “We’re the enemy.”

Ike Thomas (Trinity ‘69, Ph.D. ‘83): One of the enduring memories I have is seeing police officers with face masks down... and this is a very small detail, but nobody had on a nameplate and in riot situations. People don’t wear their nameplates because they don’t want to be accountable for what happened.

Brenda Armstrong, (Woman’s College ‘70) as quoted in The Chronicle: For a moment, the innocent bystanders were treated just as those who were sympathetic or involved in the takeover. For that brief moment, everybody understood the desperation, the feeling of not having any options, of not even having a free, unbiased audience to hear complaints. They felt what it was like to not be heard.

'The fight wasn't over': The aftermath

Leaving the building was a matter of safety, not defeat. The next day, continuing to pressure the administration to meet their demands, black students began a boycott of classes, and members of the Afro-American Society soon met with administrators for three hours. The administration offered to meet some demands and to implement others to some degree. The summer transitional program and Black Studies Department were established soon after the protest.

The University charged 25 protesters with violating the Pickets and Protest policy. On March 19, a hearing committee chaired by law professor A. Kenneth Pye heard the charges. The firm Chambers and Ferguson donated their legal services to support the students.

Black students relied on a strategy of solidarity. Despite the fact that their grades would be impacted, no student broke the boycott until it was collectively called off, and risking expulsion, black students who were not in the Allen Building signed affidavits claiming that they were. Ultimately, the administration gave 47 students a one-year probation. We could not find record of any law enforcement officer being disciplined for use of force.

McBride: When I called [my father] after the Takeover to let him know I was OK, he asked me what was I gonna do. I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Well, pack your stuff and come home.” And I said, “OK,” but I had no intention of doing that, and I didn’t... Because the fight wasn’t over. You can’t start something without finishing it, especially something like that... 

We felt that a boycott would pressure the University because the University would look bad if all the black students left... It’s one of those things that as an old man, I wouldn’t do, but as a young man, I was willing to do... We weren’t so much thinking of ourselves as those who would come after us.

Mark Pinsky (Trinity ‘70, former writer for The Chronicle): [The average student] didn't care—didn't care until the tear gas began going off and drifting into different buildings. So there were people who were not at all radicalized who didn't like the idea of cops on the campus, who didn't like tear gas. So one of the more popular slogans that was on a placard the next day was "You use gas, so we cut class."

Social change...I would say this is self-flattering...is a redemptive minority. It's always a minority. So in the ‘60s, everybody wasn't involved—a small percentage of people at elite white and black colleges. Gradually opposition to the war grew in ‘68, ‘69, ‘70, ‘71, ‘72, but back in '69, not so much. There were a lot of people who hated us, really. They wanted to get on with their careers and making money.

Edward J. Burns (Trinity ‘29), in a letter to President Douglas Knight after the Takeover: I do not think that the vast majority of Negroes qualify for attending Duke in any respect... Duke was a much better institution in a number of ways before they were admitted.

McBride: I became a chain smoker. Phillip Cousin and Father Porter said that there was a dark cloud over me and they got somebody to counsel me... I think the pressure of the boycott affected me. I felt badly about that. I felt some responsibility for some of those students not coming back [due to low grades] because they tried to adhere to the boycott.

William Werber (Trinity ‘30), in a letter to President Knight after the Takeover: It also seems to me that these [n******] at Duke, and the description is carefully chosen, ought to get down on their knees every night and offer prayers of thankfulness for the privilege of attending a white University and white expense... It is nothing less than a tragedy that you fail to expel them now.

Charles Becton (Law School ‘69): Our strategy [for the judicial process] was to get everyone, all the blacks on campus, to sign a document saying that they were in the building... We figured the University would not suspend all black students... That actually worked and in fact that was part of the judgment that was rendered on.

LeBlanc: Even though all black students did not go into the building, it was really hard to put their names on something that—we thought we were getting expelled. And to get expelled back then, especially as a guy, you going to Vietnam and there are a couple of us that are not here as a result of that...so it was very critical that the whole black community come together. 

Becton: As part of [our lawyer’s] closing argument, he said: “It’s not just the students on trial, it’s the University on trial.”

Read part four here.

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