Point of Reckoning: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University

Image of Point of Reckoning: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University
Release Date: 
February 5, 2021
Duke University Press Books
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In February of 1969, Duke University was on the cusp of national prominence, about to eclipse Emory and Vanderbilt as the South’s premier institution of higher learning and preparing what would be a carefully crafted campaign to challenge the Ivy League.

Duke was founded in the 1920s by tobacco tycoon and monopolist James B. “Buck” Duke, joining other Robber Baron universities and philanthropic foundations of the era—Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon, Vanderbilt, Ford, Rockefeller, and Rice. Like them, a significant motive for Duke University's establishment and endowment appears to have been to burnish, if not launder, the reputation of its hard-knuckled benefactor.

What Buck Duke wanted, journalist W. J. Cash wrote at the time in the American Mercury magazine, “was a Babbitt factory, a mill for grinding out go-get-’em boys in the wholesale and undeviating fashion in which his Chesterfield plant across the way ground out cigarettes.”

Such foreboding notwithstanding, in the decades that followed, Duke grew into a respectable, mid-level, provincial university, poised to take the next step in its upward, academic mobility.

The greatest barrier that stood in Duke’s way by 1969 was race. Only six years before, it had admitted the first five African American undergraduates, following by a year a handful of law, professional, and other graduate students. By 1969, the number of Black students had slowly climbed to 67.

But Duke, as an institution, was ill-prepared for integration, Theodore Segal writes in his excellent, accessible new book, Point of Reckoning: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University:

“Under Jim Crow, the academic and social opportunities offered by Duke were for white students only. The ‘Duke Experience’ was a training ground for advancement in white America.”

And when the decision to integrate was finally made, the primary motivation, Segal writes, “was money, not ideology.”

The federal government, along with national foundations, were threatening to cut funding to all-white institutions like Duke.

“Once fully implemented, these policies would destroy Duke’s aspirations to become a leading national research university,” Segal writes.

Segal says his intention is to challenge “the comfortable narrative that has emerged over the decades about the role campus protest played in the history of Duke. That narrative focuses on change—the role Black and white student protestors played in successfully forcing a provincial southern school to confront its Jim Crow legacy.”

At the time, integration on the campus was not going well: “The reason was the Jim Crow racial attitudes and practices that continued to pervade Duke.”

The list of campus affronts, large and small, to the African American students is infuriating, even 50 years later. Some professors were openly and unapologetically racist. Too little effort was made to help the Black undergraduates who were struggling academically. Some Black undergraduates who turned in A-quality essays were accused of plagiarism.

Members of the Kappa Alpha men’s fraternity regularly dressed as Confederate soldiers and displayed the Stars and Bars battle flag outside their dorm section. The pep band at football and basketball games played “Dixie” before every basketball game, with all the fans standing, except for African Americans and a handful of liberal and radical white students.

At the time, a majority of Duke alumni were from the South, and conservative. They had been admitted to the university when academic standards were not as rigorous as they were becoming. Many were frankly and unapologetically racist, and thus were critical of efforts to admit, much less make welcome, African Americans. And they were not embarrassed to say so.

In 1967, Wilhelmina Reuben, one of the first five African American undergraduates, was elected by women students as the university’s May Queen. Trustee C. B. Houck wrote to Duke President Douglas Knight that the election result was in “bad taste.” Another trustee, George M. Ivey Jr. wrote to say he found the election “nauseating to contemplate” that the university would admit white students who would make such a choice.

Contemporaneously, undergraduate Chuck Hopkins organized an Afro-American Society (AAS), similar to groups springing up on other predominantly white campuses, although Hopkins initially saw the group as social and cultural. Soon, however, the addition of two law students, Charles Becton and Lee Hatcher, pushed the AAS in a more explicitly political direction. In 1967, they held a highly disciplined, mannerly “study-in” protest in front of the office of University President Douglas Knight’s office.

The students were particularly focused on the troubling number of African American undergraduates who were leaving Duke because of academic difficulties. They were also concerned with more symbolic issues.

One demand was that Duke clearly prohibit any university functions at segregated facilities. A prime target was the nearby Hope Valley Country Club, of which Knight was a member, which did not admit African Americans as guests, much less as members. 

National tension over race and civil rights boiled over in April of 1968, in the days following the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination. More than a thousand Duke students and faculty marched to Knight’s house in protest of university policies.

Foremost among these were the egregiously low pay of Duke’s predominantly Black nonacademic workers, and the refusal of administrators to recognize their union. The protest moved to the university’s main quadrangle, grew to 1,500, predominately white students, and became known as “The Silent Vigil.”

Skeptical Black students in the Afro-American Society largely held back from participating, seeing it as a liberal, white protest. However, they did leverage the Vigil’s momentum to support striking maids, janitors, and dining hall workers in their goal of recognizing their Local 77 in their struggle for recognition. The Black students saw union members as akin to their parents.

It didn’t require a Marxist to recognize that the key point of the university’s resistance to the 1968 Silent Vigil’s demands was economic, rather than racial, a stark example of class struggle.

The Executive Committee of the Duke board of trustees comprised leaders of the tobacco and textile industries. They were vehemently opposed to any collective bargaining on the campus, which they had also opposed in their companies. In the case of the textile companies, in the 1920s and 1930s, this resistance extended to the point of gunfire.

On the issue of collective bargaining and union recognition, these trustees managed to outflank and then steamroll the Silent Vigil’s moderate, conciliatory, white students on the quad. The demonstration ended with mostly symbolic statements and vague promises. Although there were incremental wage increases for the nonacademic workers, there was no fundamental shift in the campus power dynamic.

The lessons of this failure were not lost on African American students as they watched from the sidelines. Even before the Vigil, they had independently begun to formulate a more radical, confrontational strategy, timed to coincide with Black History Month, February of 1969.

For their part, as Segal explains, neither administrators nor the trustees could imagine anything that serious coming from within the Afro-American Society. Typically, they preferred to point the finger at “outside agitators,” like Howard Fuller, a charismatic Durham community organizer and, later, to comedian Dick Gregory, who spoke on campus.

“At Duke, by attributing Black campus activism to external forces, administrators and faculty were able to maintain their view that Black students lacked the agency, intelligence, and skill to play a sophisticated protest. . . . By adopting such a perspective, university officials were able to blame activism on external forces rather than the failure of the school to exercise responsible leadership on racial matters.”

The Black students felt they were spinning their wheels in discussions with temporizing administrators. Still, there were some victories: Knight resigned from the Hope Valley Country Club; and proposals were made to make efforts to retain those Black students who were academically struggling, and to allow those who had flunked out to return; and the marching band agreed to stop playing “Dixie.”

But this wasn’t considered sufficient, so AAS members began planning to seize and occupy the first floor of Allen Building, the administrative center of the university. The date was set for February 13, at the conclusion of Black Week, a campus-wide celebration of African American culture and politics.

On that morning, more than 40 members of the AAS occupied and locked down the section of the building where the registrar had offices and student records. They issued their demands, including establishment of an academic department of African and African American studies.

Administrators and trustees scrambled to formulate a response. The early consensus was to give those inside Allen Building an hour to come out. If they refused, Knight would call in the Durham police and, if necessary, the National Guard to evict the students, who would then be summarily suspended or expelled.

After a daylong standoff, and fruitless communications, the occupiers left Allen Building, their identities shielded by sympathetic student and faculty supporters crowded around the front door.

However, by then the police were on campus, and a chaotic melée followed on the main quadrangle with 1,500 angry students, some of whom tossed back tear gas canisters on the police.

Conservative trustees and alumni applauded Knight’s actions, often in crude, racist comments, urging Knight to expel the occupiers and “admit no more of them,” that desegregation had been a mistake.

In the immediate aftermath of the takeover, negotiations continued, sometimes in plain view of hundreds of member of the university community in an auditorium, or at Knight’s house.

Faculty and administrators agreed to the appointment of an African American student advisor, with the concurrence of the AAS, and the first, tentative steps toward establishing a Black studies department. Ultimately, none of the Allen Building occupiers were forced to leave Duke.

However, Local 77 remained unrecognized until 1972.

And, as the months following the takeover passed, it became clear that the faculty intended to exclude AAS members from the creation of the Black studies program.

“The events of February 13, 1969, at Duke University represented the culmination of racial and interpersonal dynamics that had existed from the moment of desegregation,” according to Segal. “The university failed completely to anticipate the needs of Black undergraduates or to plan to get to know the students or to learn about the communities and families from which they had come.”

Six weeks later, Douglas Knight, who stubbornly insisted that none of the intervening progress on the AAS’s demands had come about because of the confrontation, was forced to resign.

In both the 1968 Silent Vigil and the Allen Building takeover the following year, a pivotal problem in confronting the racial challenges was Knight himself. Duke’s young and uncertain president was the first leader from outside the South, and as a result he was hesitant to challenge region’s mores.

Segal writes that as the Allen Building confrontation drew near, Knight considered himself hopelessly battered by African American and radical white students on one side, and hidebound trustees on the other.

Knight’s own views on race were generally progressive. However, the reality was (and is) that there is no common ground when it comes to racism. As Segal writes, Knight “did not see racial inclusion as a value that was ‘core’ to the university.”

Among the more sympathetic white liberal students, Knight was thought of as “a good man trapped in an evil system.” But the New England bred, Yale educated classics scholar seemed so indecisive that in the face of the racial crisis he appeared unclear whether he was a university president or Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark.

In writing contemporary history, the question fairly asked is, who is best positioned to tell the story: a committed participant, an engaged eyewitness, or an insightful, dispassionate observer, writing with the perspective of geographic and time distance?

Thus, on its face, a white, 60-something corporate lawyer like Theodore Segal might not seem the ideal choice to write the definitive account of the most significant racial challenge in Duke’s history, or for the University’s Press to publish it.

Yet there is a persuasive backstory that explains and justifies this arrangement.

As a Duke undergrad in the mid-1970s, Segal wrote his senior paper on the 1968 Silent Vigil. In 1979, he was a history graduate student, researching the 1969 Allen Building takeover by African American students for his master’s thesis. But before he could complete the project he left Duke to attend law school at Georgetown.

Segal acknowledges that his adult life and subsequent career were shaped by white privilege, but that on returning to the subject he found that the people and events he was writing about were no longer abstractions.

“When I left graduate school,” Segal writes, “I promised my history professor Bill Chafe and myself that I would complete the master’s thesis I had started on Black campus activism at Duke in the 1960s. After a break of more than forty years, this book is the fulfillment of that promise.”

It is indeed.

Duke now boasts a robust and nationally acclaimed Department of African and African Studies. There is campus research center named for the esteemed historian John Hope Franklin, and a Black culture center named for jazz legend Mary Lou Williams. A building is named for Wilhelmina Ruben, who went on to become a leading lawyer, law professor, university administrator, and trustee for both Duke University and The Duke Endowment.

And more than half of those admitted to the class of 2023 were people of color, 12 percent of them African Americans.