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Laying Claim to a Legacy

Laying Claim to a Legacy

$1.5 million gift announced as Duke's black alumni return to campus

October 6, 2013 |
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Alma Jones

Alumna Alma Jones accompanies the 100 Men in Black during the gala events.

The nine-month commemoration of the 50th anniversary of black students at Duke University came to an end this past weekend with hundreds of black alumni returning to campus to lay claim to the university that helped shape them.

"This past year we retrieved a history that might have vanished," Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead told a packed Page Auditorium on Saturday night as he welcomed the alumni home. The sheer number of returning alumni, including some who had skipped other Duke reunions, indicated to him that they were "more than the Duke diehards, but people without unequivocally happy memories" who were choosing to reconnect.

On behalf of black alumni, Brodhead was presented with a check for $1.5 million to help endow the Dean Martina J. Bryant and Reginaldo Howard Memorial scholarships. Alumni also gave to the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture. The fundraising, which began in mid-summer, was led by Melvia Wallace, T '85, co-chair of the 50th anniversary development committee. Brodhead called the support "awesome" and said David Rubenstein, T '70, chair of Duke's Board of Trustees, had donated an additional $250,000 to the funds.

Brodhead highlighted notable black alumni and faculty who have made advances at Duke, including Rev. Luke Powery, the first black dean of Duke Chapel; Paula McClain, the first black dean of a school; politicians such as N.C. State Sen. Dan Blue and U.S. Sen. Mo Cowan and Duke's first black head coach, wrestling coach Glen Lanham.

"Inequality is an ongoing issue in our culture," he said. "But I hope you can take some pride in what has been gained. In the days when Duke was segregated it failed to live up to its mission. The mission of a university is to take talented people and give them a lift that helps them live a significant life. Duke can take pride in the contributions you all have made to the life and times of our society.

"The presence of black people gave opportunities for everybody. Everybody's education was inferior before integration," Brodhead said.

The program in Page featured multimedia, singing, dancing and stepping in a theatrical retelling of the black experience at Duke over the last 50 years. Student performers highlighted moments of protest, success in sports, Greek life and the hiring of black faculty. In one of several emotional moments during the program, the audience stood and cheered when the gift raised by the 50th committee was announced.  

Throughout the weekend, participants honored people such as Bryant who encouraged black students during difficult times. Many cited Duke's employees, and Durham, for helping them overcome obstacles.

Kendra Harris, Fuqua '85, says other black students in her business school cohort helped her persevere at Duke. Although she has kept up with Duke since then, she hadn't been back to visit in years.

"We were a cohesive group of like-minded individuals," Harris recalled. "There weren't very many of us and it was sink-or-swim in an exceptionally rigorous program. I felt fortunate to be part of that pocket that I hit."

At the welcome reception, Harriet McLaughlin Stafford, '73, referred to the three 'S's that helped her make it through Duke: stories, strategies and strength.

"It wasn't about our individual success; it was about our collective success. We knew a wider horizon lay before us. That vision was the reason we were committed to collaborative learning. It was a study culture we created," McLaughlin said. "Our point was to acquire knowledge to take back to our communities."

The Rev. C.G. Newsome speaks at the "Our New Day Begun" panel.  Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

The alumni were supplied with a full weekend schedule that included academic panels starting Friday morning. The African & African American Studies department offered a full-day symposium featuring Duke alumni discussing issues of race. During "Our New Day Begun" in Duke Chapel, moderated by Dean Luke Powery, panelists told stories of how faith sustained them during their time at Duke.

"God placed angels all around me," said Caroline Lattimore, Duke's first black dean of minority affairs. "In the chapel I found refuge, solace, grace. God allowed me to serve the students for more than 35 years at Duke."

One of the first black undergraduates, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, said, "We came in as a people of faith in the midst of a situation that wanted to define you as less or other."

Reuben-Cooke offered her hope for Duke's future.

"I want Duke to create a culture that really appreciates and values the full strength of each individual so that we are not merely tolerating each other. And it has to be something that is not dependent on the president or the administration but that can survive for years to come."

The Rev. C.G. Newsome, T '72, D'75, G '82, Duke's first black football player, who grew up in Hoskin, N.C., said he was recruited on a scholarship by both Wake Forest and Duke. He eventually chose Duke and the chapel became his spiritual anchor.

"Imagine being part of a team with guys who never spoke to you," said Newsome, one of the first black athletes to be named to the ACC All-Academic Team. At times, he wished he were invisible. "It was Ralph Ellison-type stuff. For years I drank tea without sugar to remind me of the bitterness of Duke University."

Newsome, who along with Ernie Jackson was one of Duke's first black football players, endured fans standing to sing Dixie at games. He said Duke must continue to manage all of the diversity on campus, not just racial but also diversity in ethnicity and faith, so it could be "not just a great academic community, but a great community."

Although the weekend gala culminated the nine-month commemoration, the work will continue.  Alumni Affairs made new important connections, and several alumni noted that the energy of the weekend drew them back to the university even when they had skipped previous reunions.

On Saturday afternoon, nearly 600 members of the Duke and Durham communities attended a town hall meeting at the Durham Performing Arts Center dedicated to the combined history of the university and the city.

Several first-year Duke students attended and said hearing the stories of struggle reminded them to "do more than just be at Duke. I have the seat but I can't just sit in it. I have to do something with it," said first-year student Chinyere Amanze. Lee Barnes, another first-year student, said despite the tremendous amount of work that has been done over the past 50 years Duke can do a better job raising cultural awareness and facilitating interactions between cultures.

In one dramatic moment, a black local resident spoke to the audience, saying he was illiterate and asking Duke panelists what they could say to encourage him.

Gala participants shared tweets during the weekend events.

Following remarks by Mayor Bill Bell and Brodhead, a panel discussed their experiences at Duke and in Durham then took questions from the audience. Congressman G.K. Butterfield was unable to attend but presented a proclamation on behalf of Duke's first black undergraduates on the floor of the N.C. House.

Joyce Johnson, W '68, recalled how difficult it was for her to call the housekeeping staff by their first names like the white students did. Nat White, T '67, one of the first five black undergraduates said the "maids silently and not so silently encouraged him, although having maids was new to us."

Speaking of the Duke workers, the Rev. Bill Turner, BSEE '71, M.Div. '74, Ph.D. '84, said these were the people who "prayed for us, surrounded and covered us."

Dr. Brenda Armstrong, T '70, H '79, said housekeeping staff, and one worker in particular, Ms. Mildred, helped keep her at Duke "when we were fed multiple doses of 'you're not supposed to be here... when we came through the (cafeteria) line you gave us extra food, you dragged us to church."

Reggie Lyons, '84, president of the Duke University Black Alumni Connection (DUBAC) said that things have become somewhat better in contrast to what earlier black students and the panelists endured. To illustrate, he asked all of the doctors, lawyers, engineers and those with graduate degrees in the audience to stand. "This," he said, "is black power."

Jamaal Adams, '97, closed the program citing his humble beginnings with a comment about the power of education as the great equalizer. "When I was at Duke I felt like I could do anything because of the doors you opened for me," he said.  

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