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Quad Dedication Brings Julian Abele 'Out of the Shadows'

Abele family members, Duke community share in the recognition of African-American architect

Part of the Julian Abele's Legacy Series
Julian Abele Jr. sits on the dais before Friday's ceremony dedicating a West Campus quad after his father. Photo by Chris Hildreth/Duke Photography

Julian Abele Jr. sits on the dais before Friday's ceremony dedicating a West Campus quad after his father. Photo by Chris Hildreth/Duke Photography

By the time Julian Abele Jr. spoke at Friday’s dedication of the central West Campus quad now named after his architect father, it already seemed like the ceremony marked an important moment in Duke history.

“I consider Duke University to be my father’s finest work,” said Abele, speaking not far from the iconic Duke Chapel, of which his father oversaw the design. “I’ve been on many fine campuses, but I consider this to be the finest. My father would be very uneasy with all this attention, he hated to be in the limelight. But he was proud of his work at Duke.”

To many, the ceremony was overdue.  Abele, an African-American architect who was the chief designer for Philadelphia’s Horace Trumbauer firm, led the design not just of West Campus in 1924, but also of many of the key architectural elements of East Campus, including Baldwin Auditorium.

Julian Abele Jr. talks with Phil Freelon, a Durham native and the lead architect for the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. Photos by Chris Hildreth/Duke Photography.

A few people knew of Abele’s role, but to the larger Duke community Abele was “in the shadows” of Duke’s history until the 1980s.  In recent years, the university posted his portrait in the Allen Building and in the library’s main reading room. But at the ceremony, President Richard H. Brodhead said naming West Campus’ central quad after him, and installing a plaque honoring his achievement, was particularly appropriate.

Directing visitors’ eyes to the stone-clad Gothic buildings around them, Brodhead said the plaque quoted what was said about British architect Christopher Wren. “If you seek his monument, look around.”

“Consider the time in which he worked,” Brodhead said.  “Doors were closed to black students and faculty. We believed in a systematically unequal system that was designed to make people inferior. Blacks were prevented from holding positions in which they could make their skills obvious. But in the middle of that America, this magnificent campus was created through the work of a black architect.

“The beauty of this campus disproves everything that was believed during segregation.  Just stand and look at the beauty of the campus, and see how it shows up the falsehoods about the supposed limitations of humans, and the self-deceptions inherent in those ideas.”

The speakers at the ceremony surround the new plaque honoring Julian Abele.

Four generations of Abeles were in attendance at Friday’s ceremony. Julian Abele Jr. said the family was “very proud of what Duke has done to keep his recognition alive. We give full credit to the many people in the Duke administration, faculty and students, who kept this thing alive.”

Three African-American student and alumni groups also shared the spotlight at the ceremony and took the moment to underscore African-Americans’ contribution to Duke history.

“This was truly a day Julian Abele made,” said Danielle Squires, president of Duke Black Alumni. “When I was a student here, there were rumors about a black architect who made the chapel.  But I didn’t know of him, although I should have known about him.  I didn’t know he was part of the Duke narrative.  I did know that the chapel lines were comforting to me. 

“The recognition gives us continued hope and pride for success yet to come for our members,” Squires added.  “I hope that this recognition of black excellence will propel African-American students forward with a feeling of ownership of the place.”

Members of the Abele family and other visitors explore the new Abele plaque.

The Black Student Alliance (BSA), which has sponsored a Julian Abele Awards ceremony since 1990, is using the dedication to kick off a series of year-long events highlighting Abele’s contributions to the university. In honor of the quad dedication, the BSA donated $1,935 to the Flint (Mich.) Child Health and Development Fund.

Noting the obstacles Abele had overcome, BSA President Tiana Horn said, “For me, when I walk past the chapel, I see something bigger than myself. … I believe, that as an architect, were Julian Abele here to witness the naming of Abele Quad and see the big central area of land named after him, he would see opportunity -- opportunity to build and opportunity to grow. This is an area of land on which to build a foundation for a better and more inclusive Duke, a Duke that acknowledges the missteps of the past and aims to remedy them.”

Horn and Ocoszio Jackson, president of the Duke Black Graduate and Professional Student Association, both tied Duke’s efforts to build a more inclusive campus to larger national issues. In encouraging students to act on these issues, Jackson said they should rely on the vision of their ancestors, such as Abele.

“If we are relentless in executing that vision, we will leave Duke a better place,” Jackson said.

President Brodhead speaks at the ceremony, held on the new Abele quad.

The ceremony came a day after Duke presented Duke Chapel custodian Oscar Dantzler with the University Medal, the institution’s highest honor. Brodhead recognized Dantzler at Friday’s ceremony to large applause from the more than 400 people attending. 

The university received a bit of luck with the ceremony. Thunderstorms came through just one hour before, threatening to force the ceremony inside, away from the quad. However, the storm moved through and left patches of blue sky and sunshine to shine down.

“That rain was tears of joy from Julian Abele looking down on us,” said Duke Trustee Chair David Rubenstein, who closed the ceremony.

“Abele Quad is at the center of the campus,” Rubenstein said. “It’s hard not to go through it. Every time you do, you’ll see Julian Abele’s name, and I’m hopeful you’ll think about what he did and how difficult it was for him to do it.  I hope you will remember this as one of the most important Duke events you go to.”