Cowan Honors Legacy of First Black Students

Senator calls for alumni to continue the legacy of pioneers by helping close the achievement gap 

U.S. Sen. William
U.S. Sen. William "Mo" Cowan talks with Fuqua Professor Lucy Reuben and Nat White, one of the first African-American undergraduates, in the Great Hall. Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke University Photography

On a sunny, spring Saturday afternoon, hundreds of alumni, students and Duke community members gathered in Page Auditorium to celebrate the achievement, courage and contributions African-American students have made at the university over the last 50 years.

Keynote speaker U.S. Sen. William "Mo" Cowan (D-Mass.) gave a speech that linked the legacy of Duke's first black students and the impact of the Civil Rights Movement to the ongoing struggle to close the education achievement gap for minority students.

Cowan, a 1991 graduate, began by thanking the three black men who helped him get in office -- Barack Obama, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and God -- eliciting chuckles from the audience.

 Watch a recording of the event.

In a speech that was often personal, Cowan reflected on his undergraduate days, paying homage to the "black bench" where black students regularly gathered, to the "intoxicating allure" of black student weekend and to the Durham community.

Ultimately, Cowan provided both historical and contemporary context to the legacy of Duke's first black students.

"In 1963, five young undergraduates broke through a barrier of discrimination and prejudice because they wanted a world-class education.  And while we have overcome the hurdle of segregation, millions of children in our country still lack the access to the quality education they deserve," Cowan said, citing alarming statistics about the rising cost of higher education.

Of the first five, only three -- Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, Nathaniel White Jr. and Gene Kendall -- still survive. They attended Saturday's event alongside the immediate and extended families of the two who are deceased, Mary Mitchell Harris and Cassandra Smith Rush.

Several African-American alumni who integrated the graduate and professional schools were also honored during the program.

"If you were one of the first five, among your senior year memories were indelible images and observations that no doubt shaped your impressions of the wider world," Cowan said, referencing civil unrest in Birmingham, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," church bombings and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers.

He recognized the "remarkable progress" the university and the nation has made over the last 50 years, but said "we shouldn't feel like the work is complete."

"How should the university community respond when academic research questions the qualifications and preparation of black students? What does it mean when student groups throw offensive parties? And what do we do about black student weekend?" Cowan said, listing current issues with which the university is still struggling.

"We can debate these questions openly and honestly. We can engage with the non-ending quest for enlightenment and understanding, and there is space for disagreement. We can acknowledge it frankly and keep at it," Cowan said.

President Richard H. Brodhead introduced Cowan and said Duke was a white and black university from the very beginning, influenced by Durham's black community and its campus designed by a black architect. But the law of the land kept it segregated.

"It took Duke University to resolve to open its doors to all. But it took actual young men and women to walk through those doors. They had to represent the whole promise of your race," Brodhead said to the predominately black audience. "When Duke integrated, it did not add five black students. It transformed itself."

Brodhead thanked the "pioneers for creating this world where we could have a Mo Cowan," one of only two sitting African-American U.S. senators.

Mary Harris' son, Mike, said he was honored to have been in such great company and bear witness to his mother's legacy at Duke.

"I had no idea of the scope -- the lawyers, the doctors, the educators -- who came with or before the Class of '67," Harris said. "My mom always told me she was treated well at Duke."

Keith Daniel, the program manager for the nine-month commemoration of black students that began in January, said Cowan's remarks were "clearly heartfelt and personal," and captured the social and cultural shifts happening in higher education and in the country.

"It exceeded my expectations," added Catherine Gibson Taylor, the first African-American student to receive a master's degree from Duke's Program in Education. She said she was being honored for "things that are part of what I do anyway, helping students. The work has not stopped. It still continues."

W. Delano Meriwether, the first African-American student to graduate from Duke Medical School, said he was glad to see Duke interested in carrying on the legacy of the first students to integrate the school.

"It's wonderful to be a part of it. I acknowledge the role women have played and continue to play" in breaking down barriers, he said.

One of those women, Ida Stephens Owens, the first black student to earn a Ph.D. from Duke's Graduate School, said the event positively reflected on Duke.

"There's a lot to be proud of. African Americans can take credit for putting this university on a different trajectory," Owens said. 

Below: Sen. William "Mo" Cowan speaks in Page Auditorium Saturday.  Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke University Photography.

Mo Cowan