Black students eager for reopening of Mary Lou Williams Center amid delays

<p>The Mary Lou Williams Center is undergoing construction after a burst pipe and is set to open in spring 2024.</p>

The Mary Lou Williams Center is undergoing construction after a burst pipe and is set to open in spring 2024.

On Sept. 26, 2022, a chilled pipe in Flowers Building burst and flooded the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, leading to its abrupt closure. 

Almost a year later, the MLWC shows few signs of reopening soon.

Vanessa Roth, communications specialist for Duke Facilities Management, stated in fall 2022 that the target for re-occupancy would be the fall of 2023. 

But now, the project timeline has been extended due to a variety of circumstances, according to Director of Project Management Michael Dausch.

“The Mary Lou Williams Center has taken a collegial approach on the project, with group reviews and decisions regarding design of the space and the furniture selection,” Dausch wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “Value engineering work was completed to simplify finishes on the lower level.”

Following the lengthy design and bidding process, “administrative approval and contract preparation were completed promptly,” with the new re-occupancy date set to early spring 2024. 

Prior to the flooding, the MLWC was a lively, two-floor hub for Black student life on campus. It was where junior Kendall Motley, now the director of programming for the Black Student Alliance, held rehearsals for the United in Praise Gospel Choir. 

Motley described the Mary Lou as a space for Black community members at Duke “to come together, let loose and feel seen.”  

In the aftermath of the flooding, students who frequented the center felt their safe space was lost.

Many Black affinity groups, including the gospel choir Motley directs, were forced to find new locations with sufficient space to hold meetings and programming events.

Isaiah Hamilton, former BSA president, current Duke Student Government President and a senior, remembers the MLWC as a “warm, vibrant place” where he was always sure to run into a familiar face and strike up a good conversation.

Hamilton acknowledges that the temporary space for the MLWC does not completely fill the void left by the flooding. However, Hamilton also pointed out that the Black Duke community has been able to make the best of a hard situation through a shared “sense of resiliency.”

With the newly projected reopening date of the center, Hamilton is hopeful that the renovated center will be “a truly welcoming space for all people in the diaspora.”

A temporary location for the Mary Lou has since been established in the Bryan Center, but this has been met with mixed reactions from students.

For Motley, the physical location of the interim center does not capture the same aura of the original space. The temporary space for the center in Bryan Center 106 and 109 is significantly smaller and located in a less private area.

“I’m grateful that Duke was able to accommodate the Mary Lou Williams Center and the MLWC staff trying their best to make our space ours,” Motley wrote. “The temporary space does not compare to the original Mary Lou Williams Center. The temporary space is in a very public area which lessens my personal level of comfort. I will be elated when Duke finally repairs the Lou!”

Andrew Bae profile
Andrew Bae | Associate News Editor

Andrew Bae is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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