Bill Griffith on the 1969 Allen Building Takeover

The retired dean of student affairs was key in a pivotal moment in Duke's history

Part of the Celebrating the Past, Charting the Future Series
Bill Griffith said the Allen Building demonstration was unique among student protests in the 1960s.
Bill Griffith said the Allen Building demonstration was unique among student protests in the 1960s.

Bill Griffith was the dean of student affairs in the 1960s, as African-American students first began to integrate Duke. A popular administrator, Griffith changed how students interacted with one another and the administration during some of Duke's most turbulent decades. Griffith began his Duke career in 1950 in admissions before assuming leadership roles in the Office of Student Affairs. He retired in 1991 but is still active in the Duke community. An auditorium in the Bryan Center -- the William and Carol Griffith Theater -- is named for him and his wife. And he has spent many years cultivating the arts on campus through his work with the Nasher Museum of Art.

In a conversation with Alma Blount, the co-director of the Hart Leadership Program, and her husband David Guy, '70, a writing instructor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, Griffith shares his memories of African-American students at Duke, and what has come to be known as the 1969 Allen Building takeover.

Griffith: I always remind people that it wasn't a takeover of the Allen Building, it was a takeover of one small segment of the Allen Building. It was the first floor and the hallway that came by my office.

Interestingly enough, I always got up early and went to work at about 6 in the morning.  Around 6:15, I heard some hammering and thought, this is crazy, that the custodial people were working that early. I went out and saw three or four black students using two-by-fours to lock the two doors. They saw me and said, "Dean, this is just something we have to do."

I knew that (then-President) Douglas Knight was in New York. I called the provost, Marcus Hobbs, and said, "We've got a situation here."

I felt a certain responsibility to the students because they weren't some random outsiders coming [into the Allen Building] and doing this. They were our family. From that point, it was a question of communicating with them. It started with passing notes and then we started talking through a window. After we had met for a time, by the early afternoon, I heard that the state police were going to come from the Duke Gardens and come up to clear the area. I went down to find out what was happening in the gardens, and sure enough, 20 to 25 officers were coming up. I tried to tell the police that everything was going to work out and we didn’t need that. But once they have the orders, they come.

Guy: How did you feel about it at the time? It was shocking to me.

Griffith: I recognized why the students were doing it. They'd been having a lot of interactions with administrators. I just saw it as something that was happening and that we had to resolve in some way. The black students wanted better treatment from the administration.

Knight came back that evening. He was on tenterhooks with the Board of Trustees because of the vigil (the campus-wide protest after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. which had taken place the previous year). They thought the president should just have to take care of such things, they shouldn't have to worry about them. Not that they came out and said that. But this really marked the end of Knight's administration, in my opinion.

I felt that the Duke situation with the vigil was different from what was going on at other campuses. It was never physically destructive. It was rather unique. I actually got calls from news services, who would say, "Call us if it gets rough."

I give credit to the students. That was just the way they did it.

And at the same time, I felt the Board of Trustees was saying, why haven't you taken care of this?

Blount:  What was it like in your role when the school was first integrated? What was the vibe? Were people happy with it?

Griffith: The reaction I kept running into was, why didn't this happen earlier? I never came into contact with anyone who said, "Why are they doing this?" Those people might just not have wanted to speak to me, I don’t know. But I had a lot of people saying, "Boy, it's about time."

There were certainly some students who weren't happy with the takeover of the Allen Building, but again, they didn't say much to me. I think people were expecting something to happen. I didn't find it surprising.

One of the best things was when Terry Sanford came here. He was sensitive to what was happening. One thing he did was absolutely critical. Within a few weeks of his tenure here he appointed a committee that he chaired and it included black students, key faculty and administrators who could make things happen. I served as secretary of that body, the President's Council on Black Affairs, and it met every two weeks and the president was always there as chief officer. It was a most effective body.

Blount: Sanford was strategic, and he had amazing emotional and social intelligence.

Guy: But I think Knight's challenges had to happen before Sanford's successes could have occurred.

Griffith: I think you're right.  

Blount: What did you observe through the years about the perspective of the black students?

Griffith: Those first five black students were really unique students, although one left early in the period. Then after we got a larger group of black students, things changed. They would separate themselves off in various ways, in the dining hall, in a bench on the quad where they always used to sit. I didn't like that concept. I would go and sit on that bench. I'd just sit there and talk with them. I guess I wondered what I would do if I were one of a small few at an all-black university, and I understood.  

Blount: How did you feel about the whole situation?

Griffith: I don’t know how I felt. I worried a lot.

Blount: I think we were lucky to have you as a dean, with your charm, strength and good old common sense. I feel sure you had a moderating effect.

Griffith: I think I had a good relationship with the black students. I just did what seemed to be necessary.

Blount: What happened to the students who participated in the Allen Building takeover?

Griffith: Yes, that's an important postscript. It's connected to an interesting story about Ken Pye, who was dean of the law school at that time and who also served as Duke's chancellor during his long career here. The question was, what do you do with the students? Pye's idea was to create a unique legal situation -- a hearing with a judge. He provided the black students with the best lawyers and expert legal advice. The whole thing was done exceedingly well. This was not the undergraduate judicial board but a specially convened group. The hearing took place at the law school, and out of it came the situation, I think, of probation, but no suspensions.

To learn more about the nine-month commemoration of black students at Duke, and to attend upcoming events, visit spotlight.duke.edu/50years. Below: a picture of the students in Allen Building.

Allen Building takeover