Pioneers Who Changed Duke

Kickoff event cancelled, but the nine-month commemoration goes on

Freezing rain and dangerous road conditions led to the cancellation of Friday's reception in honor of the 50th anniversary of black undergraduate students at Duke.

More than 600 people had registered for the 7 p.m. event to be held at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art. As weather developed over the region by late Friday afternoon, the university enacted its severe weather policy and organizers made the difficult decision to cancel.

"I'm very disappointed that we had to cancel the kickoff event, but we haven't missed a beat in moving ahead with our programming," said Ben Reese, co-chair of the 50th Anniversary Executive Committee and vice president of institutional equity. For updates, visit  The next scheduled event is a Duke Law lecture series on civil rights featuring Randall Kennedy.

The 50th Anniversary Committee is working with Duke's Office of Durham and Regional Affairs to donate a portion of the non-perishable food, prepared by Parizade for Friday's night reception, to a local homeless shelter.

Three of the five surviving firsts, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, Gene Kendall, Nathaniel White Jr., as well as the families of Mary Mitchell Harris and Cassandra Rush traveled to Durham or were en route for the evening reception. In addition, several African-American "firsts" from the graduate and professional schools, including Donna Harris (nursing) and Jean Spaulding (psychiatry) planned to attend before the weather worsened.

The reception was to launch nine months of events honoring these pioneers and include a screening of a 12-minute video featuring interviews with several black alumni who helped integrate Duke. (See video above.)

Reese, D. Michael Bennett, '77, vice president of the Duke Alumni Association's board of directors, Alexandra Swain, student body president, Shelvis Ponds, and Duke president Richard H. Brodhead planned to make remarks during the brief program. 

Reuben-Cooke, Kendall and White made several media appearances while in Durham. On Tuesday afternoon, White joined black alumnae Dr. Brenda Armstrong, '70, and Maureen Cullins, '76, on WUNC's "The State of Things" radio program to share their experiences as students.

On Thursday afternoon, Reuben-Cooke, Kendall and White were interviewed by several local media outlets during a 2-hour discussion at Duke’s Alumni Association. Reporters from the Herald-Sun, Triangle Tribune, Duke's Chronicle, ABC 11 and WRAL asked them what they thought of Duke's changing campus and what advice they would give to today's students.

Media Coverage of the 50th Anniversary

WTVD: 50th Anniversary of Duke desegregation marked

WRAL: Duke's 'First Five' black students celebrate 50 years since integration

Duke University Celebrates 50th Anniversary Of Integration

Duke Chronicle: Duke integration was 'lesson to the institution'

Durham Herald-Sun: 'The story has to be told'

Fox Carolina: Duke commemorates 50th anniversary of integration


Below: Gene Kendall, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke and Nathaniel White Jr. meet with the media Thursday afternoon.  Photo: Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

 Megan Morr/Duke University Photography