On June 16, 2020. Duke’s Black students, faculty and staff spoke out about racism at the university during an all-day event called “Living While Black.” Held by videoconference, more than 6300 members of the Duke community attended. Soon thereafter, Duke president Vincent Price committed the university to taking “transformative action now toward eliminating the systems of racism and inequality that have shaped the lived experiences of too many members of the Duke community.” He acknowledged that Duke had “often not fully embraced” its mission “to be agents of progress in advancing racial equity and justice.” Price outlined a series of bold and specific actions that would “resolutely turn [Duke’s] attention toward the mission of anti-racism." Although addressing issues that had confronted the university since the Sixties, Price’s words conveyed new urgency in both tone and substance.
The work of anti-racism, Price recognized, will depend on sustained effort and deep engagement by those not subject to racism “with humility, with humanity, and with honesty.” Price said he was seeking to “listen, and to learn,” and disclosed that he had been “meeting with my colleagues and reading Black authors and theorists.” Anti-racism work will also require significant resources during a very challenging time for higher education. So one must ask: Is change really coming?
One reason for pessimism is that, as Trina Jones, Jerome M. Culp Distinguished Professor of Law, observed at the Living While Black symposium, “Duke has been here before. Duke is scrambling, acting as if it is new,” she commented, “as if the sources of racism are new.” Jones cited the “long list of symposiums, committees, and task forces” addressing racial issues at Duke over the years and said that “the narratives of personal discrimination we’ve heard today have echoes across the decades.”
Jones is right. The events of today have a haunting resonance to those that first played out at Duke in 1969–just six years after undergraduate desegregation.
On February 5, 1969, the Duke Afro-American Society (AAS) set forth what would now be called its “anti-racism” program. Published in Harambee, a Black student newspaper issued to coincide with the start of “Black Week,” the AAS demanded “an education which will sustain the culture of Black people.” It insisted on “an equitable representation of Black students at Duke,” and called for the university to support the struggle of its nonacademic employees for “unionization and liberation,” an end to “racist living conditions” on campus, “police harassment of Black students,” and “tokenism of Black representation in university power structures.” “We will not be appeased by the tidbits the administration has handed out,” the AAS said a week later. “We will not compromise our humanity... We want a say in everything that involves us... We want to be in on... any plans or decisions that have anything to do with us.”
On the evening of February 10, 75 Black students, along with activist and comedian Dick Gregory, met with Duke President Douglas Knight at his home to discuss the AAS’ demands. The next day, Knight issued a statement. He rejected the characterization of the issues presented to him as “demands,” describing the meeting as one in which the Black students set forth “matters which are of deep and genuine concern to them.” Knight communicated urgency. He promised that the issues raised “will be considered without any of the delays of which people are so suspicious these days.”
Knight thought that the meeting had gone well, telling administration colleagues the next day that he had talked to the Black students at his home “with what he felt was good rapport.” In fact, he was mistaken: the students viewed the evening as a turning point. After months of meetings with the university, they decided after talking to Knight that a new approach was needed. “During Black Week we went to visit Dr. Knight with Dick Gregory,” Black undergraduate Brenda Brown recounted. “That was the point everyone went back and said we’ve got to talk about something that’s gonna do something.” Three days later, on February 13, 1969, members of the AAS occupied key portions of the Allen Building–Duke’s administrative hub. Police and the National Guard were quickly mobilized to clear the building. The takeover ended after ten hours.
One day later, another meeting was held at Knight’s house. In attendance were representatives of the AAS, community organizer Howard Fuller, Duke faculty, administrators and the chairman of the Board of Trustees. This time, it appeared that some progress had been achieved. “Howard Fuller was very eloquent in outlining the so-called demands,” history professor Richard Watson recalled. “In almost every instance, Knight seemed to give assurance that there was no real problem in working them out.”
At a campus-wide meeting on February 16, sociology professor Alan Kerckhoff, chairman of a faculty committee formed during the takeover to address Black student concerns, read a joint statement approved by the university and the AAS. He commented on the learning that had occurred at Knight’s house, describing the discussion as “at a level of specificity and depth of meaning that was most impressive.” “A great deal of information was exchanged,” Kerckhoff observed, and “some real understanding achieved.” Kerckhoff summarized the status of each of the AAS demands. He too conveyed urgency. An off-campus retreat to settle on the outlines of a Black Studies program would be held within the month. Work on other demands would move forward. “We are committed to action,” he concluded.
Unfortunately, optimism that progress had been made was premature. The off-campus retreat on Black Studies was, according to history professor John Cell, a “fiasco.” Discussions broke down over the level of control students would have over the new program. Several weeks later, the AAS ceased all further communications with the university. Nevertheless, the university–without student input–approved an interdepartmental Black Studies major that would be offered in the fall.
In May, a faculty committee investigated the progress that had been made on the Black Studies major. The faculty committee wrote the provost that it was “distressed to learn that the [committee working on the major] has experienced considerable difficulty in securing cooperation from the various Departments in development of a curriculum” to support the major. “There has clearly been a loss of the sense of urgency which prevailed in March,” the committee wrote. They communicated “grave concern.”
In June, the committee chaired by Kerckhoff issued its final report. “The University must not continue to be in a defensive position,” it warned the provost. “It must propose courses of action, actively seek student (and other) support for its actions, and take the initiative in implementation of those principles which all of us profess.” Concerned that the university had previously acted only when compelled to do so, the committee cautioned that “it is all too easy to relax during a ‘quiet period’ and wait for the next explosion.”
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In January 1970, a faculty group investigated the university’s progress in addressing Black student concerns and had a clear warning for Duke Chancellor Barnes Woodhall. “After only a limited inquiry into the state of affairs one year after a confrontation which dramatized the issue,” the group wrote Woodhall, “we are convinced that black students are legitimately concerned about their future at Duke. We, as well as they, conclude that the extent of the University's commitment to black students remains unclear.” “Immediate clarification of the extent of the University's commitment to the... black students is imperative. ”
Thus, over fifty years after the tumultuous events of 1969, one still must ask: Is change really coming? Will Duke leaders sustain their focus on systemic racism at Duke in a way that their predecessors could not? Only time will tell.
Ted Segal is a Duke graduate (A.B. 1977), retired lawyer, and a board member of the Center for Documentary Studies at the school. His book, Point of Reckoning: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University, will be published by Duke University Press in February 2021. Special thanks to the Duke University Archives for preserving the historical records quoted in this piece and for making them readily accessible.