Michael Holyfield, '79, came to Duke when there were few black students to "dive into the ocean," taking advantage of all the school had to offer. The philosophy/history major and A.B. Duke scholar was involved in the performing arts, Duke Chorale, and had a particular talent for rooting for his college team.
As a sophomore in 1976 he became the university's first black Blue Devil mascot -- a role in which he still feels a sense of pride. "It's been a question on Jeopardy," he says. "The Blue Devil is one of the most popular university mascots in the country."
The experience was not without adversity, but this weekend Holyfield will be the center of attention as the university pays tribute to him during Saturday's football game against Troy.
Last winter Holyfield shared some of the painful aspects of his tenure as mascot on the website for Duke's 50th anniversary of black students. The website, spotlight.duke.edu/50years, has collected alumni memories for a 9-month commemoration honoring the courage of Duke's first black students. The commemoration concludes with an event-filled weekend, Oct. 3-6.
In those days the Blue Devil wore a Batman-like mask, partially concealing his face. However, everyone could see Holyfield was an African-American student.
"I can remember going to both home games and away games and being taunted with racial slurs by the opposing teams and their fans and even dodging missiles thrown my way," he wrote.
Some of the obstacles hit closer to home. He said he wasn't invited to Duke alumni functions in host cities, and that he was excluded from the annual athletic banquet held at the end of the academic year.
"Adding insult to injury, the next year the face of the Blue Devil was covered in totality," he wrote.
Upon learning of Holyfield's experience, Duke Athletics took action to make things right by inviting him to attend this weekend's homecoming as a VIP guest. He will be formally recognized for his service to Duke and presented with a letterman's jacket during the football game.
"Unfortunately, we cannot erase the past relative to the injustice faced by Michael. However, we are proud to do what is right. That said, it is a much different and better time for college athletics, and for Duke in particular. This is a time when absolute inclusion among all parties is a primary objective," said Kevin White, vice president and director of Duke Athletics.
Earlier this week, Holyfield, who works in the security industry in Philadelphia, said he's looking forward to "coming home."
"It's nice to feel welcome and at home. I can't look at the Chapel and not feel something," said Holyfield, who is returning to campus for the first time in decades.
Below, Holyfield photographed with the current mascot at Saturday's football game. Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography