Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture celebrates grand reopening following 18-month closure

The Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture celebrated the grand reopening of its space on the first floor of the Flowers Building Friday afternoon following 18 months of renovation.

The center, affectionately known as “the Lou,” was forced to close in September 2022 after a chilled pipe in the Flowers Building burst, causing “significant water damage” to the facility. It was temporarily relocated to the Bryan Center with renovations originally slated to conclude in fall 2023, but delays in construction pushed the reopening to early spring 2024.

The Lou is a common space for Black-identifying students to celebrate their identity and find community. Its mission is to “provide a safe and affirming space that supports the diverse needs of Black-identified people at Duke University.”

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“[Duke’s administration] had a decision point to make quickly when the damage got assessed,” said Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president of student affairs. “… Do we go as fast as possible to get the space back open, [or] do we take a moment to figure out how to really reimagine and fully avail ourselves of the potential of the space?”

The Mary Lou Williams Center was first opened in 1983 and is named after Mary Lou Williams, a prominent figure in American jazz. From 1977 until her death in 1981, she was an artist-in-residence at Duke University and the director of the Duke Jazz Ensemble. While at Duke, she taught courses on African American cultural history in jazz music. 

“This space holds a rich history within our campus,” said Stacia Solomon, director of the Mary Lou Williams Center. “Since its founding, the reputation [of] its namesake, Mary Lou Williams, is one that should provide a safe and affirming space and support for the diversity of Black-identified people here at Duke University."

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By reimagining the Lou’s potential, Solomon hopes that it can be a refuge for those who utilize its resources.

“I hope that you’ll agree that the space is vibrant,” she said. “It has definitely been updated, and it’s truly a welcoming space for our students and anyone who chooses to visit.” 

Solomon and McMahon spoke alongside Marc Lee, coordinator of the Hayti Heritage Site in Durham, sophomore Joe Asamoah-Boadu, the incoming president of the Black Student Alliance, and Dawna Jones, career influencer at the Duke Career Hub and former director of the MLWC, at the grand reopening ceremony. A reception was also held in the newly-renovated center, featuring The Lou’s famous live jazz ensemble.

Asamoah-Boadu shared that the center feels like a home for Black students on campus. There, he said they are able to “relax and forget about everything that’s going on outside and be with one another,” and share “thoughts, accomplishments and even tears.”

"I want to make clear that the Lou isn't just a building, but a spirit that we all carry with us," Asamoah-Boadu said.


Claire Cranford profile
Claire Cranford

Claire Cranford is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter for the news department.       

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