Student-organized alumni panel commemorates 55th anniversary of Allen Building Takeover

Members of the Duke community gathered Tuesday evening on the 55th anniversary of the Allen Building Takeover to hear from alumni who participated in the demonstration.

Four panelists, including three Allen Building Takeover student activists and Theodore Segal, Trinity ‘77 and author of “Point of Reckoning: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University,” took the stage in the Rubenstein Library’s Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room to share their experiences.

Junior Destiny Benjamin organized the panel, which was co-sponsored by the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, Duke Libraries and Duke Arts. Benjamin undertook a project through her blog "What's Our Destiny?" by reexamining the events of the takeover and its legacy on campus and recreating photos from the event using current students as models.

“Learning about the Allen Building Takeover for me was a key moment when transitioning to Duke,” Benjamin said. “As an African and African American Studies major, the activism and protests of Black undergraduate students at Duke since 1963 was a consistent theme in my classes, and I was fascinated every single time I learned about it.”

She then connected with student activists from the Afro-American Society (AAS) who organized and participated in the takeover, including Michael LeBlanc, Trinity ‘71, Catherine LeBlanc, Women’s College ‘71, and Michael McBride, Trinity ‘71, who all spoke on the panel.

The protest began around 8 a.m. on Feb. 13, 1969, when over 50 students entered the Allen Building with the intention of bringing University administration’s attention to 11 grievances pertaining to the inclusion of Black students in Duke’s academics and campus culture.

The operation went smoothly thanks to the “military-like precision” of the students, who began planning the takeover weeks in advance. One participant in the audience reminisced about the efforts to “diagram” the building, mapping out administrative offices and taking note of important features like exits to ensure a quick and safe arrival for students on the fateful day.

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Catherine LeBlanc commented on the group’s cohesion, noting that all student action once the building had been successfully occupied was decided democratically.

“The folks who were taking the lead in the planning … they would present it to the group, and then the group voted,” she said. “The important thing is [that] everybody’s vote counted.”

Catherine LeBlanc also spoke about the unique experience of Black women on campus, noting that she was one of only eight Black female students admitted in her year. 

“When we started the Afro-American Society, we really found out where the rest of the Black people were,” she said. “[That] was when a sense of community really began.”

The women were still a minority in this space compared to the 33 Black male students in the organization. Nevertheless, Catherine LeBlanc expressed that female students felt a sense of respect and belonging from their male AAS peers.

“We always had an equal vote and an equal voice in everything that happened,” she said.

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The group remained in the Allen Building until around 5 p.m., despite frequent urgings from administration to vacate the premises. University President Douglas Knight decided to call in Durham police and the National Guard soon after the protest began.

Those inside the building were kept updated on the situation outside by sympathetic students, many of whom were Black athletes that could not risk losing their scholarships by participating in the occupation. Eventually, it became clear that law enforcement would soon arrive to forcibly remove the students, and they voted to leave the building peacefully before a confrontation could occur.

“One of the most touching things for me — and it still brings tears to my eyes — [was] people like Mark sitting over there,” Catherine LeBlanc said as she pointed to an audience member. 

“They had a group of white students lined up along the walkway when we did make the decision to come out. And they were all there seeking to shield and protect us because they knew we knew that if the University could identify who was in the building, [those protestors] were probably gone. And they were everywhere just protecting us,” she said. “I was so grateful, Mark.”

Student unity continued long after the protest, when the administration charged the participating students with violating University policy. The students’ legal team decided that nearly all of Duke’s Black students would admit to participating in the protest, as the administration had no photographs or proof of involvement to support their case.

“Because they couldn’t identify anybody, the strategy was [that] everybody said, ‘We’re in the building,’” said one alumnus in the audience. “They can’t figure out the culpable liability of any one person.”

This approach was ultimately successful, as students were dealt a sentence of one year’s suspension instead of expulsion.

The protest had taken a violent turn after the students vacated the Allen Building. Police arrived at campus, answering the call from President Knight earlier in the day, and began tear-gassing and clubbing students.

Segal contrasted the administration’s approach to their response to the Silent Vigil organized in 1968 by primarily white students. 

“In that protest, the University did everything it could to avoid any kind of confrontation, down to calling out the Durham police to protect the protestors on the quad from more extremist elements in the community,” Segal said. “Whereas just 10 months later, when Black students [were] in the building, it took the University just one hour to decide to call in the police.”

Segal contended that Knight was “singularly ill-equipped, just from a skill set perspective, to handle the kind of confrontation and divisiveness that played out under his tenure.”

With Duke celebrating its Centennial this year, the panelists reflected on their hopes for the University’s development over the next 100 years.

Michael LeBlanc expressed his desire for the University to build on the progress already made by student demonstrators to become “the vanguard of getting true integration and equality.”

Catherine LeBlanc agreed, adding that she hopes everyone in the Duke community — students, faculty, administrators and staff — has the “opportunity to belong here, to feel that they are welcomed here and that they are provided with any and everything they need in order to flourish.”

McBride qualified that his wish applies not only to Duke but to all institutions of higher learning.

“To me, a university is a place [where] you have open inquiry, where you can confront your ignorance and share your perspectives,” McBride said.

Catherine LeBlanc left the audience members with a final piece of advice for organizing successful campus mobilizations.

“All institutions are hard to change,” she said. “But if you do have the passion around wanting to change something … it’s going to require persistence, and it’s going to require creativity.

Editor's Note: This article was updated Wednesday afternoon to clarify that the project was a product of Benjamin's blog, "What's Our Destiny?" 

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly quotes one speaker as saying "the vanguard of getting true integration and inequality.” It has been updated to "true integration and equality." The Chronicle regrets the error. 


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Zoe Kolenovsky | Associate News Editor

Zoe Kolenovsky is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor for the news department. 

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