In his book “Point of Reckoning: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University,” Theodore D. Segal, Trinity ‘77, sheds light on Duke’s story of desegregation, student activism in the 1960s and concerning behavioral patterns among administrators.
The Chronicle interviewed Segal about his inspiration, writing process and various themes in the book.
The Chronicle: What inspired you to write Point of Reckoning?
Ted Segal: When I was at Duke as an undergraduate, I did a senior honors thesis on The Silent Vigil, which is sort of the white protest movement that occurred after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. After I graduated, I ended up going back to Duke as a history graduate student, and I decided that since I’d written about white student activism at Duke, I’d study Black student activism for my master’s thesis. That way I could see how white protesters and Black protesters protest differently and how they’re responded to differently.
I ended up dropping out of graduate school before I finished the master’s thesis. I made it one year, and I had written seven out of eight chapters of the master’s thesis. I said to my supervisor, then very young history professor [William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin professor emeritus of history], ‘I know I’m disappointing you that I’m dropping out of graduate school, but I’m going to go back to Washington, and I’m going to finish the master’s thesis.’
So I boxed up everything, and I never opened the box. One thing led to another—I ended up going to law school, I got married, I had kids, I had a career, and just as I was retiring from my law practice in 2016, I had occasion to retrieve that box that had all my master’s papers in it. I got the goofy idea, just for fun, to finish the master’s thesis.
I actually reconnected with Bill Chafe, who by that point was an emeritus professor, having become one of the most famous civil rights historians on the planet. I asked him, ‘If I write it, would you read it?’ and he said, ‘Sure.’
What started in 2016 as ‘I’ll write this last chapter of my master’s thesis’ turned into “Point of Reckoning.” I think the reason I became so absorbed in it is that I saw events so differently as a grownup than I did as a kid. Also, I felt so many of the themes and so many of the patterns I was looking at in Duke in the 60s continued to persist at Duke currently, so it felt very current and very immediate to me. The book ended up being the resurrection of a project 40 years ago in my past.
TC: Are there original parts from your master’s thesis in the book?
TS: Yes, when I left Duke as a graduate student in ‘79, I was planning to move to Washington, and first thing I’d open the box and finish. I packed it up so that everything was ready to go. I had folders for each chapter; I had Chafe’s markups of chapters that I hadn't incorporated yet. This was before computers, so these chapters were typed on typewriters. I had tapes and interview transcripts, so when I opened the box, the first thing I did was fish out the master’s thesis that I had started.
It was in the course of reading it that I thought, ‘Wow, there were some things here I really missed.’ And it was that realization that led me to get back into it.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
TC: Did you keep tabs on racial justice as Duke throughout your life? Or did you have to go back and look at Duke’s history when you decided to write the book?
TS: I really didn’t keep tabs on Duke. I had lost touch with Bill Chafe, who I had been very close to when I was a graduate student and he was a young professor. I generally followed Duke, like basketball or if they’d announce some capital campaign, but I really got disconnected from Duke. I was not an active alumnus. I didn’t go to reunions, I lost track with all my Duke friends.
It was really the process of reopening this research, spending weeks at the archives on campus and learning more about Duke that really sort of sparked the whole thing.
For 40 years, I was completely out of touch with these issues. Even in my own life, when I was at my law firm, I sat on diversity committees and on nonprofit boards, and I kind of talked the talk. But it wasn’t really until I began doing this work that I saw some of myself in some of these administrators who said the right thing but never did anything. I really started to come to grips with my own blind spots.
TC: What are the main ideas that you hope people get from reading the book?
TS: One of them is that unless words of commitment are coupled with significant financial investment over a sustained period of time, anti-racism is unlikely to go anywhere. This ultimately isn’t a problem of needing more book groups or trainings. We need to invest in changing the school in ways that put more money towards priorities that aren’t just the usual priorities. The priority we need to have is having an anti-racist institution.
Number two, ultimately, progress at Duke stalled. Not because of the handful of openly racist people but because of everyone else—all of the people in administration and in the faculty who found work on racial equity uncomfortable, unnecessary, boring, no time for it. Progress stalled because no one was willing to make it a priority in a sustained way.
The last thing I’ll say is, you’ll see this pattern in the book, that because these white administrators never made an effort to get to know the Black students or to learn their lived experiences that they came from, they were effectively almost reisolated once they got to campus. And in the absence of the administration knowing why these kids were doing what they’re doing, based on getting to know them and asking them questions, these white people, who were oblivious, had opinions that were made up based on racial myths that the white administrators had grown up with.
I interviewed a couple of activists from 2016-2017, Trey Walk [Trinity ‘19] and Sydney Roberts [Trinity ‘19]. They are fantastic. Both Sydney and Trey describe how every class that comes in has to re-educate the administration as to what the issues minorities and others at Duke face. You’d make a lot more progress if the University was more proactive in trying to find out how students are seeing things.
TC: Do you have any favorite parts of the book?
TS: Generally, the hostile environment that Black students faced when they came in and how unable these administrators were to understand them. As you go forward, because at Duke there were white protests followed nine months later by Black protests, you see how differently white students who were protesting were treated and responded to.
Madeleine Berger is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.