Summer Program Deepens Duke’s History of Diversity

Students, faculty and staff collaborate on project for University Archives

Members of the Duke History Revisited program met twice a week to discuss research methods and individual projects. In all, eight students studied aspects of diversity at Duke. Photo by Mark Zupan.
Members of the Duke History Revisited program met twice a week to discuss research methods and individual projects. In all, eight students studied aspects of diversity at Duke. Photo by Mark Zupan.

Across this spring and summer, eight Duke students invested a combined 1,200 hours diving into topics surrounding diversity and inclusivity throughout the university’s history, from women empowerment movements to the relationship between Duke and Durham and the place of Asian-American students on campus.

University archivist Valerie Gillispie helped lead “Duke History Revisited,” an immersive research experience that allowed undergraduate students to perform in-depth research about topics related to race, gender and activism. As projects complete this week, they’ll be added to Duke University Archives to bolster Duke Libraries’ collection of materials focused on traditionally underrepresented groups. Amy McDonald, assistant university archivist, also provided insight and assistance to the project.

To perform research, students looked through Duke’s archival materials, documents from outside the university and held in-person interviews to record oral histories. 

“It’s really important that the archives reflect the university in all its dimensions and gather this kind of historical information that may have been ignored in the past,” Gillispie said. “It’s allowed students to better understand the power of what documents we do have and build on them for future research scholarship.”

Supported with funding from Humanities Writ Large and Valerie Ashby, dean of the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke History Revisited has combined independent research with weekly gatherings to discuss projects and hear from speakers. Presentations have ranged from how to record oral histories and the role of the press to hearing from Duke community members like William Turner Jr., a professor of the practice at Duke Divinity School and one of the early African-American students enrolled at Duke. Duke Libraries has offered guidance and support through classes, presentations and meetings.

Students have explored topics like:

  • The history of labor activism on campus
  • First generation college students at Duke
  • Relations between Duke and the City of Durham highlighted by the Durham Freeway
  • Women’s abortion programs created by student government

Alan Ko, a rising sophomore, applied to be a part of the program because he plans to declare history as his major next year. He performed research into the past 100 years of Asian-American students and those of Asian descent at Duke after finding a lack of documentation on the topic on campus. What was once an underrepresented minority on campus is now a large part of the community, Ko said, noting that students who identify as Asian-Americans make up nearly a quarter of the undergraduate student population. 

“Duke evolved to this very diverse university where half the students identify as students of color,” Ko said. “Asian students are an important part of that narrative.”

Along with studying physical materials at University Archives, Ko interviewed Duke alumni of Asian heritage by scouring old yearbooks and finding emails or phone numbers through Google searches and LinkedIn. 

“In the beginning, you have an idea but don’t really know where to go as you piece together the story,” Ko said. “But little by little, it comes together.”

Along with Gillispie, Ko has received guidance from History Department faculty Joshua Sosin and Jocelyn Olcott, who have also helped to teach the class about aspects of primary document research and the importance of critically thinking about the past. Olcott, an associate professor with the department, said that a project like Duke History Revisited is critical to more deeply understand Duke itself. 

“People are always interested in questions that have connections to themselves,” Olcott said. “This kind of research adds to the perspective of the Duke experience and creates a connection to what’s come before us.”