Friendship More Important than Race

Former students, employees recall relationships amid integration

William "Big Bill" Jones, seen here in a picture from 1957, made friends across Duke's campus. Jones, who worked for dining services, was Duke's first black supervisor. Photo courtesy of University Archives.

At a time when bathrooms and buses were separate in the South, Carroll Beaty saw his best friend as equal.

For up to 25 hours a week in the late 1950s, Beaty, a white undergraduate studying engineering, worked in Duke's West Union dining hall for a work-study job, serving food and clearing tables. Much of that time, he worked with William Jones - or "Big Bill" as he was commonly known around campus.

Beaty said Jones, Duke's first black supervisor, stood about 6-and-a-half feet tall and weighed close to 300 pounds but had an outgoing attitude that was far bigger.

"Bill was more than a supervisor. He was a mentor and my best friend on campus those years I worked for him," said Beaty, now 75. "To me, it was normal to work and interact with black employees. Friendship was more important than race."

Their relationship was one of many between Duke students and black employees that created lasting impressions. They're among the aspects of student and employee life being celebrated this year as part of Duke's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of black undergraduate students at Duke.

Black employees had long been working at Duke in 1963, when the first five black undergraduates enrolled. At the time, there were two black professors, hundreds of black staff and no black administrators or trustees. The earliest employment figures show that in 1965, black staff made up 28.5 percent of the workforce; that represented 1,602 of 5,621 Duke employees who held clerical positions, prepared food in dining halls and worked as technicians. Today, Duke has two black vice presidents, a black vice provost and its first black chair of the Board of Trustees served from 2009 to 2011.

Robert Korstad, professor of public policy and history at Duke, said that the percentage of black employees at Duke in the mid-1960s was most likely in line with other universities around the country. Universities tended to be more progressive in hiring practices than other industries.

"A city like Durham was a very diverse urban center by the 1960s, although the workforce and jobs in the tobacco, manufacturing or textile industry would be highly segregated in many cases by race and gender," Korstad said.

Today, 31 percent of Duke's workforce is comprised of minorities, with 22 percent of that black.

Doris B. Jordan
Undated photo of Samuel DuBois Cook. Courtesy of University Archives.

"It was an exciting time for me and many at Duke," said Samuel DuBois Cook, 84, who arrived at Duke in 1966 and was the first black tenured professor on campus. "During the civil rights movement, young people had shown such tremendous courage, independence and integrity, I knew that despite being black, I wouldn't face prejudices on campus. I felt it in my bones I would get along fine with Duke's students."

Cook was so confident, in fact, he played a prank on his American government class on his first day of class. Showing up early to his classroom, Cook found a seat in the back and waited there as white students entered and sat down.

"At 8 a.m. when the class began, I got up, went to the front of the room and you should've seen the look on the faces of students," Cook said. "They didn't expect it."

From that first class, Cook said he became friends with two of his white students - one from South Carolina and one from Florida. Cook said the students didn't see a problem spending time with him and his family, even making social visits to his wife when he traveled out of town for work.

Relationships were forged outside classrooms, too.

Ella Cooper, now 78, started work as a housekeeper in Duke's Medical Library in 1961 and then became a clerk. She recalled being the first black employee in the building when she arrived. She said her relationship with students was reciprocal - she'd help by showing them around the library or making copies of materials, and they helped her get around campus.

"When I started working here, there weren't that many black people, but students made me feel more comfortable because of how they treated me," Cooper said. "Everybody was so sweet. It made me feel more at home."

On a college campus, feeling at home was doubly important for students, many of whom were experiencing their first long-term stays away from home. Maureen Cullins arrived at Duke in 1972 from High Point. She immediately found comfort with two housekeepers who looked after her and her roommate, the only two black undergraduate students in the Graduate Center residence hall, now Trent Hall.

Just as she was dropped off on campus, Cullins was greeted by "Mrs. Mitchell," head of housekeeping staff for the building. Along with another employee, Bea Turrentine, the staff made sure Cullins and her roommate felt comfortable on campus by offering a home cooked meal, restocking toiletries and helping them focus on their course work.

"It made me feel safe because I knew that if I needed anything, I could get it," said Cullins, now director of the Multicultural Resource Center at the School of Medicine at Duke. "Because of them, I do all I can for students in my work because I want other first-generation college students to have the encouragement to do well and persevere."

For Duke students, faculty and staff, it's that lasting impression of relationships that changed lives over the years.

After graduating from Duke in 1959 and moving to California, Carroll Beaty, the engineering student, stayed in touch with his old friend and mentor, "Big Bill" Jones. Beaty eventually moved back to the state, and in 1980, he visited Duke's financial aid office on behalf of his son, Braven, who wanted to attend the university.

While waiting to see a financial aid officer, Beaty heard a booming, recognizable voice. It was Jones, his supervisor from the dining hall work study job in the late 1950s. Jones was now an employee in the financial aid office.

"I didn't know he was at the office, but as soon as I heard his voice, I knew who it was," Beaty said. "He was so important those years I was at Duke as an undergraduate and as a friend and person I had high respect for. I'll never forget those years working with him."