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How does Duke remember its workers? Part 1

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Editor's note: This story is Part 1 in a series of columns by Alicia Sun exploring the history of labor at Duke. Part 2 will be published in late September.

Like most universities, Duke takes pride in its history. When I came here as a first-year, the tour guides and administrators were eager to teach me about Duke’s founders and key historical figures, like J.B. Duke and Washington Duke. As a student, I am constantly reminded of their legacy. Their names are plastered on libraries, hotels and residence halls across campus.

But there is a gaping hole in our history. While this university was established by the wealth of white men like the Dukes and the Alspaughs, it was built by the Lucius Jeters and the Oliver Harveys—the predominantly black workers who have devoted decades of their lives to Duke. The laborers and service workers are an invisible layer that keeps this institution running. Sadly, their indelible contribution goes unacknowledged.

Following the 2017 rally in Charlottesville and the subsequent national dialogue on symbols and history, Duke began to engage with its own past—a past that is rife with injustice and labor exploitation. After the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from  the Chapel, President Vincent Price convened a Commission on Memory and History, which would begin efforts to recognize “those individuals whose labor was the foundation of the wealth that created Duke University and whose hands built our campus.”

And yet the Commission, whose goals included recognizing laborers, included no non-academic staff. In its efforts to create a greater sense of equity, the University engaged in a conversation that  omitted the same people who are absent from its buildings and memorials: the workforce. How do workers feel about Duke’s efforts to reexamine and memorialize the past? How much does a conversation around history and memory have bearing on their concerns today as members of the Duke community?

Charles Gooch started working at Duke when he was 17. Now 63, he has been a Duke employee for 46 years. As former president of Local 77, the Duke labor union that represents housekeeping employees, Gooch is an outspoken critic of the University’s labor practices. In fact, he stepped down from the presidency in 2017 to protest what he considered unfair changes to Duke’s housekeeping schedule and currently works at Marketplace. His years on campus, however, have not dulled the stark terms in which he describes Duke’s relationship with its labor force.

“We’re going back to the slave mentality,” he asserted in our conversation. Gooch describes a hierarchy that does not divide itself along historical racial lines of black and white, but along positions of power within the black community: “Slave mentality is [about] the overseer. When you look at the old slave pictures, you have a black on their horse overseeing other blacks. And they don't know how to treat their workforce because they just know they got a title. So I've been seeing this all across Duke: the overseer mentality.”

Gooch started working at Duke in 1974. “I’ve seen all the changes,” he says. “When I came here most of the supervisor managers was white. Now we got most of the supervisor managers are black.”

Gooch believes that Duke is taking advantage of these power dynamics by hiring more black managers. “Ten years to this day, everybody from Duke [Housing and Residence Life], everybody we deal with, even the administrators, they only give us black people. There are hardly any whites we deal with,” he says.  Gooch believes the hiring is designed to insulate the university from charges of racism. “It's a good technique,” he admits in a grimly cynical tone. “When I see how the black management treating the black workforce, I did not see this when I had white supervisor management.”

Shawn Easterling, a former housekeeper in Craven dorm, agrees that there is a racial hierarchy. “Duke is a plantation,” he states candidly. “The way you are talked to and the way you are handled—you’re treated like a slave on a plantation pretty much. You may get yelled at. There’s just a lot to this place that’s done behind the scenes… Y’all don’t hear that stuff.”

Easterling has worked at Duke since 2006, but his roots here go further back. Born in Duke Hospital in 1971, Easterling has been a life-long resident of Durham.

 “This is home for me,” he says. “My mother’s worked here, my aunts, uncles. I still have family members working in the hospital now. To me, when you start talking about Duke University and its history and its family orientation, this is our old mill.” Yet as much meaning as this place holds for his family, he is critical of the institution. “I think we’re going back to the 1960’s,” he says, “as far as people speaking up and speaking out. Duke doesn’t want anything—as far as how they’re treating you or how you’re being treated, they don’t want that information out…There’s no feeling, there’s no compassion.”

The issues that Easterling sees now at Duke remind him of the stories he has heard from his aunt, who worked at Duke in the 1960’s as a nurse. According to his aunt, management would feed the workers days-old food. “[I heard] stories of my aunt from the 1960’s, things like feeding them food from two or three days ago that they had already cooked. They would serve it to the service workers and that would be what they had to eat.”

Like Easterling, Gooch thinks that these modern tensions in the workforce are part of an historic recurrence. “We’re regressing, because history is repeating itself,” Gooch explains. “[Duke] just brings [workers] in and say ‘I got a warm body. Put them over there. Do this.’ You just don’t know what I’ve been dealing with for years.” In spite of all this, Gooch says he appreciates what the university has given him. But he wants to see Duke improve. 

His message to leadership: “Put people first. You're making your money. Put the value back into the people.”

It’s worth noting that Gooch and Easterling’s experiences are not representative of the entire Duke labor force. They are two stories out of many. Other service workers, who did not want to be quoted for fear of retribution, had minor qualms about their jobs but made no serious allegations about mistreatment. That said, Gooch and Easterling deserve to have their voices heard; their lived experiences of injustice cannot be divorced from the university’s labor history and practices. And while Duke has made improvements, it must continue its efforts to make everyone, especially the people most central to its daily operations, feel welcome here.

Columnist’s note: In response to these allegations, Duke Human Resources, Staff and Labor Relations provided the following statement: "We are committed as an institution to uphold and model the values of diversity and inclusion. We take seriously any allegations of behaviors that are inconsistent with these values, and we have a thorough process to investigate and resolve disputes in the workplace.” 

Alicia Sun is a Trinity senior. Her column typically runs on alternate Thursdays. 

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