Two years ago, Mike Bennett '77 struck up a conversation with a passenger on a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Washington. The stranger turned out to be a fellow Duke alumnus who graduated the year after Bennett. He remembered that Bennett and other African-American students often ate meals together in the Cambridge Inn.
"He told me, 'You guys always seemed to be having such a great time, and I always wanted to come over and sit with you,'" says Bennett, now a senior vice president for the Washington-based information-technology firm BAE Systems.
But the fellow alum, who was Jewish, wasn't sure if he would be welcomed.
When Bennett volunteered to be a member of the executive committee planning the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of African-American students at Duke, he recalled that encounter. With this commemoration, he says, no one should feel they aren't welcome to join the conversation.
"We want to be sure everyone understands that this anniversary isn't just about one particular group - it's about all of us," says Bennett, who along with Sanders Adu '94 co-chairs an alumni committee planning regional events around the commemoration. "What happened 50 years ago changed Duke for everyone. And we want everyone to be part of recognizing the significance of those events."
In the spirit of that inclusivity, the regional events committee is working with the Duke Alumni Association and a host of alumni volunteers to put on events around the country honoring the 1963 enrollment of the first five African-American undergraduates at Duke. Starting in April and extending through the summer, alumni in as many as seven cities will mark the historical moment and its role in shaping Duke.
Events have been scheduled in the following cities:
--New York, April 16. Panel of Duke alumni, parents and friends to discuss the impact and legacy of African-American students at Duke, moderated by James Braxton Peterson '93, director of Africana studies at Lehigh University. Register here.
--Atlanta, April 18. Remarks by Maurice Wallace PhD '95, a Duke associate professor of English and African and African-American studies, and Lisa Borders '79, president of Grady Health Foundation and former President of the Atlanta City Council. Register here.
--Washington, July 20. More information.
Also in the works are events in Boston (at the end of May), Chicago, Dallas (in June) and Los Angeles (later in the summer). More details on those events will be posted at the Duke Alumni Association website as they are finalized.
Each event will include a collection of materials from Duke University Archives highlighting significant moments in the history of African-American students, as well as a 12-minute documentary film on the first five African-American undergrads produced for the celebration. The events also will promote support for educational and cultural opportunities such as the Reginaldo Howard and Dean Martina J. Bryant Scholarships and the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture.
Bennett says he is particularly proud that more than 100 alumni have volunteered to help plan events in their cities. A significant portion of those alumni have not volunteered with Duke before, notes Melvia Wallace '85, who is serving on the commemoration executive committee.
While many say they're motivated by the historical significance of the anniversary, they also see the events as an opportunity to create stronger ties among alumni and between alumni and Duke.
"These events serve as a way to include the entire Duke community in the celebration," says Koshie Nartey '02, who is chairing the New York event. "It signals to the community, especially Duke's African-American community, that the university takes us seriously and takes seriously our contributions. It acknowledges the often tense relationship African-American students have had with the university over the years, and it reaffirms the university's commitment to us and the issues that affect us as alums and current students."
Daniel Taylor '77, one of the organizers of the Washington event, says the anniversary also provides an opportunity for alumni to think about what they can do to ensure a vibrant and diverse community at Duke in the future. "We'd like to encourage African-American alums to play a role in that life cycle, from recruitment through campus life and career development."
In that way, the commemoration can act "as a springboard for launching Duke forward," says Bennett. "It's an opportunity for alumni to come connect with each other and reflect on what their experience was like as students, and what they would like the Duke experience to be for Duke students yet to be born."
The commemoration also continues on campus, where lectures and events surrounding the anniversary will continue throughout the year. One upcoming highlight is a keynote address on April 13, during Duke's alumni reunion weekend, by Sen. William "Mo" Cowan '91 of Massachusetts.
"It is important to mark this milestone to recognize the bravery of the first few students and the enormous progress Duke has made over the last five decades," says Adu. "The African-American experience shaped the entire Duke experience for all, so it only makes sense that all Duke alumni should be invited to celebrate."