Approximately 60 Duke students occupied the first floor of the Allen Building February 13, 1969, 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 day—or the months and years that followed—the 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 Takeover—in the words of those who were there. Some statements have been edited for length and clarity.
'Disconcerting to me': Duke in the '60s
Duke was one of the last private universities in the country to desegregate, with the first black undergraduates enrolling in fall 1963. While the number of black undergraduates climbed from five to around 100 by 1969, integration was not a universally accepted direction for Duke. In his book “Street of Dreams: The Nature and Legacy of the 1960s,” then-President Douglas Knight recalled opposition to desegregation from Duke’s Board of Trustees.
“This was not a unanimous decision,” he wrote, “there were abstentions from the vote, and a good deal of silent unhappiness among alumni and others in the region.”
Michael McBride (Trinity ‘71, former chairman of Afro-American Society): This is going to sound really strange... When my dad drove me up to Duke's campus, I saw towers. It looked like the towers were moving behind the trees and stuff. I mean, that was like Hogwarts. It just blew my mind. I thought I was coming to a community of scholars and we'd be sitting up at night having intellectual conversations... We were all, from where we came from, we were smart. We thought we were going to be around a bunch of smart folks and we’d only do smart things. And then you got there, and you found out that many of these smart people were bigots and didn’t want to accept you as being smart and being part of the university.
Chuck Hopkins (Trinity ‘69, co-founder of the Afro-American Society): [My freshman English professor] told me this: “Black students, black people are not smart enough to be successful at a school like Duke University, and they don’t warrant the kind of attention professors should be giving them.”... The best I ever got in his class was a C.
William “Bill” Turner Jr. (Trinity ‘71): In those days, middle class blacks did not go to white institutions, as they do now. Middle class blacks back then went to Howard, Tuskegee, North Carolina College. By being from the South, all black students were accustomed to all-black settings, and many of the blacks at Duke were reared in all-black schools, churches and communities. Being at Duke, they had no black professors [or] leaders, [they were] surrounded by white people—only other blacks at Duke were maids who made the beds.
Michael LeBlanc (Trinity ‘71): I’m from New Orleans. New Orleans, at the time, was probably 40 to 50 percent black. At Duke, I could go two or three days without seeing another black person. That was so totally disconcerting to me...I remember being in Page Auditorium, and for some reason we got to Page Auditorium early, and then they opened the doors to Page Auditorium and all of the students came in. I had an anxiety attack. The reason I had an anxiety attack is—don’t get mad—I just saw pink. The Caucasian students just rushed in. I couldn’t make out a face. I couldn’t make out blonde hair. I couldn’t make out black hair. I just saw this pink wave coming at me.
Brenda Armstrong (Woman’s College ‘70) , as quoted in The Chronicle: There was no substantial administration movement in any area. We had a real problem with academic attrition—about 50 percent of the black students were either in academic trouble or leaving school... It seemed our concerns were really taken lightly...All of us felt our education, our way out, was roadblocked by racism.
Janice Williams (Trinity ‘72): I think that in the first few months, I spent hours and hours; [black students] spent hours together. You know what I'm saying? We were always in the [Afro-American Society] office, we were always doing things together in between classes. If it was time to eat, we all sat together at what we called "the table" in the Union. And we took up two tables in the West Union, meaning all of the black students. We met each other's family members.
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‘A galvanizing effect’: Black Week
As Black History Month arrived without any formal recognition from the University, the Afro-American Society began to plan a week to celebrate black culture. Between Feb. 4 and Feb. 12, students performed plays about black history, published a magazine about the black experience at Duke and participated in cultural events. Speakers included lawyers, artists and activists: Carl Wayne Carter Jr., Howard Fuller, Ben Ruffin, Richard “Dick” Gregory, Fannie Lou Hamer, Maynard Jackson, LeRoi Jones, Eleanor Rux and James Turner.
Catherine LeBlanc (Trinity ‘71): It was the first time that we had had a Black Week on campus.
Hopkins: There’s no question Black Week was one of the three or four things that got us going as far as taking the building... The purpose of Black Week was directed towards the white community. The purpose of Black Week was to hopefully educate white people on this campus about black culture... It did end up having a galvanizing effect on us also. The key thing for me was the speakers they brought here... Every last one of those adults supported us.
McBride: Black Week was very galvanizing for us... It introduced the larger Duke community to us as important figures, not just as black students on campus but as a community.
Williams: We had no black professors to help us, we didn’t have any black literature courses, black theater. How can you not have black theater?... Black Week itself, the involvement in the events, the performances we put on, helped us to realize we really do need all of these things because it’s not easy.
Political tensions in the United States, and specifically in the Southeast, had escalated throughout 1968 and 1969. Across the country, black college students were participating in protests to carve out space for themselves at white institutions of higher learning. At Duke, the majority of black undergraduate students were involved in the planning of the demonstration.
Hopkins: I was aware of what was happening on other campuses as far as black consciousness and, you know, black student groups... I had that kind of consciousness and the other thing... was the real influence of the Durham black community. I think today that, looking back, Durham was unique in the United States at that time as far as having one of the most conscious and well-organized black communities.
Catherine LeBlanc: We were in the midst of a civil rights movement as a country. Many of us as elementary students, junior high students had already been on picket lines and participating in some of the sit-ins that had been happening around the country
Michael LeBlanc: 1968 probably was one of the most contentious years the country ever experienced. In ‘68 you had [Martin Luther King, Jr.] being assassinated, you had Bobby Kennedy being assassinated and you had the Democratic Convention. Unrest around the country at universities was at a pretty high point at that time.
Hopkins: As someone who was organizing trying to get the thing to happen, it was difficult for me to get people to make that commitment to go into the [Allen] building... The turning point for me as an organizer of the thing was when grades came out, first semester grades came out. I had students come to me, black students come to me, who had never participated in any kind of Afro-American society came to me, black students who had never spoken to me; they came to me and said, “Chuck we need to do something.“... After that, it was downhill. We had it.
Hopkins: It was hard to find a black individual at that time who criticized the things that we were trying to do.
Michael LeBlanc: This was not like a Tuesday we said we were going. This was like water boiling. It just got hotter and hotter and hotter.
Editor's Note: This story is part one of a four-part oral history of the 1969 Allen Building Takeover. Read part two here. Parts two through four will be published throughout the rest of the week.