Old ghosts and the question of reparations

We thought of the [Black] men, women, and children that had gone into the buildings to make up Duke University...the blood to be squeezed out of black bodies to build a university for white minds… only white minds… If white people had labored in the factories of the American tobacco industry for less than enough on which to live, they have had the satisfaction of knowing that their children may reap the benefits in a school that provides the very best training. If [Blacks] have done the same thing, it must pierce their hearts to know that Duke University has been built for every other race under the sun but theirs...[the African American] stands alone as the one human being on earth too loathsome in the eyes of the American white man to share the benefits of Duke University. 

This editorial, published by the Black-owned The Carolina Times on May 6th, 1939, powerfully captures the ways in which white supremacy has rested on exploited labor to shape Duke University. Despite multiple efforts to desegregate the school and continued reliance on low-paid, poorly treated Black labor, Black students could not attend Duke as undergraduates until twenty-four years later, in a move later lauded as a progressive “new chapter” in Duke’s history. Desegregation did not, however, return the wealth produced by and stolen from Black tobacco workers and laborers—wealth which underpins an 8.5 billion dollar endowment and scaffolds our Gothic architecture. More, desegregation did not disrupt the university’s persistent abuse of workers who daily keep the university running, a pattern that stretches from 1968 to 1998 to 2016, nor did it prompt official recognition of institutional complicity in slavery and segregation. Further bound up in a place built by and for white men, as the editorial named, was the marginalization and total exclusion of LGBTQ+ communities, women, low-income and disabled students, workers, faculty, and staff. While the University’s maintenance of anti-Black racism and economic inequality is central, these forms of violence remain linked. This legacy demands the university’s acknowledgement of its complicated past; it demands that Duke remedy these harms. In other words, Duke must reckon with the question of reparations.

Communities and institutions across the world are contending with violent, uncomfortable histories and the inequality they produced. National political conversations about reparations have exploded, sparking testimony on Capitol Hill and finding a place in the platforms of Democratic presidential candidates as politicians figure out how to address centuries-long enslavement, lynching, Jim Crow segregation and the plundering of African American communities. Writers, scholars, and activists are challenging our collective consciousness, too—the New York Times’ 1619 Project, the Equal Justice Initiative’s memorial to the victims of lynching, and movements like the Poor People’s Campaign and Black Lives Matter insist we correct our incomplete historical narrative. Higher education is not immune either. Furman University, the University of Glasgow and Georgetown University have all excavated their ties to slavery and the international slave trade, implementing multi-million dollar reparations policies of their own.

Duke itself has taken some initial steps to confront its entanglement in white supremacy. In August 2017, the toppling of the Confederate statue in downtown Durham quickly forced the administration to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from the entrance to the Chapel and form a Commission on Memory and History. A little over a year later, the university removed the violent white supremacist Julian Carr’s name from a building on East Campus after pressure from People’s State of the University and the Duke History Department, encouraged by the efforts of activists at UNC to topple Silent Sam. Just this past summer, President Price announced a new Advisory Committee on Institutional History to “engage with and learn from Duke’s history” while Dean Valerie Ashby announced a four million dollar investment into African, Asian American and Latinx studies faculty.

The Carolina Times reminds us, however, that dethroning Lee and Carr must lead us to grapple with an enduring and more profound set of injustices. The Duke Human Rights Center’s “Activating History for Justice at Duke” report brilliantly chronicles a history we too often ignore—that our longest serving president, Braxton Craven, owned slaves; that Trinity College students organized a militia to support the Confederate cause; that Washington Duke, too, owned an enslaved person named Caroline and rented another named Jim before he and his sons built a tobacco empire that consigned Black workers to the most difficult, lowest-paid jobs, all the while ensuring they would never receive the benefits of the education their labor made possible. Modern Duke has fought the unionization for labor rights of mostly Black and brown university and hospital workers, played a role in the destruction wrought in low-income Black communities by the Durham Freeway, and has driven rising rents and displacement of poor families through property acquisitions. 

This history, only briefly summarized here, has consequences. It manifests systemically in racist slurs scrawled in safe spaces for Black students, white supremacist propaganda slapped onto campus benches, and a noose hung on the Bryan Center Plaza. This history fueled controversy over the light rail, created a hostile working environment in the Parking and Transportation Office, subjected housekeepers to unfair, disruptive changes in work schedules and hastened gentrification. Lastly, though not finally, it remains etched into our built environment where white men are vastly overrepresented in statues, memorials and building names. Every day we sanitize our institution’s history we compound the consequences that will surely become its legacy. We maintain a Duke that is fundamentally unsafe and unjust, that fails in its responsibility to provide a welcoming educational environment and ensure the material well-being of its surrounding community. Duke especially fails those who still live, study and work in spite of a university built by and for white men—a historical fact overdue for correction. 

I don’t pretend to know the full scope of a reparations program that accounts for such overwhelming violence. Reparations can be about money, memorialization, changes to admissions policies or faculty hiring or a topic we haven’t yet considered. Or it can be all of these things. But we first need a historically accurate and far more robust conversation about reparations which involves all of our community members, and, given those most impacted, does not center my perspective nor those similarly privileged. My purpose in writing this is to argue that expanding this conversation is urgent—from the boardrooms at the Washington Duke to the study alcoves tucked away in Keohane’s dorms. If we can accept reparations as a moral and practical necessity, we can ensure a future strikingly different from our past.  

Five years from now, the university will mark the 100th anniversary of James B. Duke’s gift transforming Trinity College into Duke University. Before then, it has some old ghosts to settle. The Duke case for reparations is clear—a process of official acknowledgement, historical excavation and material investment that President Price’s new Advisory Committee can set into motion. More importantly, however, we must craft the framework in which we assert the moral responsibility of reparations, a responsibility we’ve inherited as beneficiaries of stolen wealth, persecution and exclusion and as members of a community where poverty, housing instability and precarious labor conditions remain entrenched. Perhaps historical clarity will permanently displace deeply-rooted, persuasive myths of a nimble, innovative and progressive Duke, and free us to do the hard, slow work brought forth by a long-overdue reckoning. 

Gino Nuzzolillo is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Gino encourages you to read the Duke Human Rights Center’s “Activating History for Justice at Duke” report and wants to pay special thanks to the authors for their wonderful research and writing. 


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