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Memories of the 1969 Allen Building Takeover: Adding to the historical record

letter to the editor

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).

I have now read all four parts of the Chronicle's oral history on the takeover of Allen Building. I was there all afternoon on February 13, 1969 and was involved in the confrontation with the police after the black students left the building.  I'm concerned that the oral history doesn’t accurately capture what happened that afternoon from the perspective of many Duke students who were there at the time.

It implies that the confrontation with police was with the black students as they exited the building. It was not. They left, shouting “We’ll be back” and disappeared before the North Carolina State Highway patrol (who entered Allen Building through a tunnel from the Duke Gardens) emerged from the building. A number of white sympathizers, who had positioned themselves on the steps outside two public entrances, shouting, “you’ll have to go through us to get to our black brothers," seemed confused about what to do next when the police appeared from inside the building, behind them. 

There were several hundred students looking on as the media set up their cameras. When the TV camera lights came on, a few of the white student sympathizers shouted “Sieg heil! Sieg heil!” and heckled the police for the cameras, insinuating a connection between the officers and Nazi Germany.  When the lights went out, the jeering stopped. This was repeated several times. Nobody was sure what was going to happen but it looked like the confrontation would end in the cool, coming darkness.  After several minutes, one young woman walked up to a helmeted and gas-masked officer who held a pepper gas machine (it sounded like a chain saw) and pantomimed a suggestive stroking of his hidden face.  He looked confused for a few seconds and then turned the machine towards her and began spraying her.

That started the riot. Several hundred students began shouting at the police and surged towards the building. There was a police car in front of the building and the students attacked it.  The police began moving toward the crowd, tear gas was thrown and the students fell back. The crowd and the police surged back and forth across the Main Quad in the dark. When a group of us retreated into the Chapel, there was tear gas in there too. After 10-15 minutes of chaos (during which the police car’s windows and body work were smashed), the police retreated into Allen Building and the students stood outside screaming. Several students put poles through the door handles to make it hard for the police to get out.

After a few minutes, Bill Griffith, Dean of Students, walked up to the crowd.  He said that the confrontation needed to stop and told the crowd to go to Page Auditorium.  Within a few minutes, all the students were in Page and the shouting died away.  Then the talking began. I believe the police left Allen Building through the tunnel and the University regained control of the building and its safe (containing Nixon’s law student records).  Who knows.

But an important part of the story is the large number of students whose political views changed that day.  Students (frat guys, football players, library nerds and the curious coming back from Chem lab) who were standing around, watching as the black students left and the sympathizers performed for the media, became incensed when the police started the riot. And their anger was palpable for the rest of the year.  Their attitudes were in marked contrast to those on campus following the Vigil (which achieved its success through passive means). The success of the Vigil may have encouraged the black students to demand that Duke do more to meet their needs, but there was none of the celebratory mood that followed the end of the Vigil. I wonder if that connection has been lost in the mists of time or it simply doesn’t fit our current expectations about what happened.

Mark Pinsky and I were on the same freshman hall and worked on the Chronicle together. He and many on the Chronicle staff were associated with the small group of campus activists in the late 60’s.  As the oral history correctly points out, the Chronicle staff was not disinterested.  I was on the fringe of both groups and spent that day trying to talk my friends out of confrontation.  But the police came expecting a confrontation and, in the end, they provoked the student violence.

Please accept this as an attempt to amplify the record, not correct it. Each of us who was there that day had a particular experience.  The historical record is not complete without each one of their perspectives too.

Nelson Ford is a Trinity '69 former Chronicle staffer. He writes in response to our four-part oral history of the 1969 Allen Building Takeover. Read part one here, part two here and part three here

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