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How does Duke remember its workers? Part 3: Missing voices

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Editor's note: This story is Part 3 in a series of columns by Alicia Sun exploring the history of labor at Duke.

In September of 2017, President Price convened the Commission on Memory and History to advise him on addressing issues of memorialization on campus. Members of the commission would  review future concerns and recommend a suitable use of the vacant space at the Chapel. The commission consisted of 16 members, including professors, faculty from various departments, and an undergraduate representative, but no nonacademic worker.

It’s a notable omission given that one of Price’s goals is to “give recognition to those individuals whose labor was the foundation of the wealth that created Duke University and whose hands built our campus.” How can the Commission’s membership fail to include representatives of the very people they are trying to “recognize?”

Commission member Dr. William Ferris, a history professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, said he was not sure why nonacademic staff were not involved. “I was asked simply to participate and did participate as fully as I could. But I agree with you, that was an oversight and it should have been done,” he said.

Former Duke housekeeper Shawn Easterling, for one, is disappointed but not surprised by the underrepresentation on the administrative level. As he put it,  “You have all your educated people discussing the non-educated people, so to speak, without the non-educated people being there. I can’t tell you about your culture without having you there. I need you there to be part of that conversation. There’s going to be some things that are going to be discussed that they’re not going to look at, that the service workers will see, recognize, and know.”

For example, Easterling believes that instead of taking down statues like that of Robert E. Lee, other statues should be added alongside them. “Go ahead and memorialize other cultures that have had things happen to them and leave those statues and other memorials,” he says. “The reason I say that is if you keep taking down our history, we won’t know our history because you keep trying to erase it […] To me, I would rather know about my history rather than hiding it.”

Charles Gooch, an employee of Duke for 46 years, echoes the need for a more inclusive commission. “They need some everyday people on there,” he says. “When you look down on a nobody, you say that we’re supposed to do stuff like this, you’re gonna get overlooked. That’s the disappointing thing, and it’s why I’m very outspoken. I tell them what I hear, I see, and I feel.”

Gooch thinks there should be some type of memorial for the people who “put all these years of service and don’t get recognition.” For as long as he’s been here, Gooch has watched fellow workers like himself pour years of service into Duke. “Where have you seen something to remember the workforce? It’s only the academic people – the only black man I know is John Hope Franklin Center. He was a prominent black man. They named it after him. But he [sic] only been here a few years. We’ve got people putting in 25, 30 [years] … We want respect, too.”

At the 50th reunion of the 1969 Allen Building Takeover in February, Howard Fuller, a prominent civil rights activist who spearheaded community organizing work in Durham, proposed a memorial be built for Oliver Harvey. Easterling, when asked who he wants to see memorialized, replied, “My first statue would be of Oliver Harvey. That’s the man that founded the Union. I would start with him.” Gooch also supports the proposal, especially because most Local 77 employees don’t know who he is, and expressed his disappointment in the union’s lack of effort to “give him homage.” To choose just one worker to memorialize, however, would be too difficult for Gooch. “I wouldn’t know,” he says, “because they should put all the workers. Just like in war, they put [statues of people]... Show these are the workers at Duke that put their heart and life in. This is a statue of housekeeping and food service workers.”

 “Without the workers, Duke would be nothing,” he says. While a memorial is a step in the right direction, some view it as not addressing workers’ current issues. “Statues do not bother me,” remarks Gooch, “but they just need to do something about the live ones.”

President and founder of Duke Students and Workers Alliance, graduating senior Grace Mok, agrees that a memorial is not the end-all-be-all. She says, “It doesn’t sound bad, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily the best way to memorialize them either. It’s also not a material change. It’s a symbolic one to honor what has been done, but a statue doesn’t raise wages or change schedules back… I have mixed feelings, but I also feel like it’s not my answer that matters.”

Easterling thinks that taking down and putting up statues causes too much commotion. Instead, we need dialogue. “We need to talk about it more,” he says. “Our discussion about it first and foremost would bring up some interesting points. But to just go ahead and start putting up statues of African American history and taking down the other history—I don’t think that’s the answer. I think that would cause more confusion than anything and add fuel to the race war that we already have.”

If he were on the commission, he would want to focus more on education and conversation, because “statue or not,” he says, “the fact that the conversation is even sparked is acknowledgement.”

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

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