Richard Brodhead on the Legacy of Julian Abele

Part of the Julian Abele's Legacy Series
The speakers at the ceremony surround the new plaque honoring Julian Abele. Photo by Duke Photography
The speakers at the ceremony surround the new plaque honoring Julian Abele. Photo by Duke Photography

This is a day of exceptional happiness and significance in the life of this university.  I’m going to say what the source of that happiness and significance is.  But first I want to draw your attention to a few people who we are very fortunate to have with us. Julian Abele Jr., I am so proud to have you here today.  The numerous members of the Abele family who are in the front row and will join us at the reception—what a treat. I know Mayor Bell is on his way, and I thank him and the other city fathers who will be joining us. I also take note of the fact that Congressman G.K. Butterfield, Duke’s very own Congressman and the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, caused a resolution to be passed in the House of Representatives honoring Julian Abele and the naming of Abele Quad today. I would like to thank the committee that advised on the best way to memorialize Julian Abele on our campus. Tallman Trask chaired that group; I won’t name all its members, but I will give a shout-out to two of them: Phil Freelon, the architect, among other things, of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, and Oscar Dantzler, the housekeeper of Duke Chapel, who received the Duke University Medal yesterday afternoon.

I ask you to humor me. Let your eyes travel slowly around all of the things that can be seen from this spot, and continue until you come all the way around the West Campus. We are at the heart, the epicenter, of Duke University. Certain things are true about West Campus that are amazing and, as far as I know, unique. First, most campuses were started and then buildings were added over time, so they’re kind of a hodgepodge, but the whole West Campus of Duke University was conceptualized and most of it executed as one single act of construction.  So our campus has a coherence, a kind of identity, that’s very rare in the history of universities.

And second, let’s just acknowledge it:  this is the most beautiful college campus in America! If you went to Duke, when you think of Duke, you think of West Campus. So many people have told me that they chose to come to Duke because, having been admitted here and elsewhere, they came for a visit, and as soon as they drove up to West Campus, the question was answered:  “I’m going there. I want to live in that place. That looks like such a great place to be.”

Two facts, then, you have heard from me: one, this campus has a continuous coherent design; and two, this is the most beautiful campus of all. And now I pass to the really extraordinary fact:  When James B. Duke gave the money to create a university out of Trinity College, he reserved the right to pick the architect. He had worked with the architectural firm in Philadelphia called the Trumbauer firm. He chose them, and Mr. Trumbauer chose his best in-house architect to do the Duke West Campus. This was Julian Abele.

A portrait of the newly named Abele Quad Julian Abele was the first black graduate of the Penn architecture program. So let’s stop and think. This university was built in the depths of segregation in the very segregated part of the U.S. The university itself obeyed the laws of segregation:  the doors of this university were closed to black students and closed to black faculty. And the entire region of the country was characterized by the belief that people were unequal on grounds of race, and by a social system designed to make people appear unequal by allowing them unequal opportunities. Blacks were kept from holding the high positions that would make them visible as remarkable talents. Blacks were kept from getting the kind of training that typically qualifies people to rise in the world. 

And yet in the very middle of that America, in the middle of that system of segregation, this magnificent and beautiful campus was thrown up as the work of a black architect, Julian Abele.

The beauty of this campus disproves everything that was held up as true in segregation days. And even beyond that place and time—because let’s be honest, America has had a particular genius for certain forms of racism in its history; and humans throughout history have found a million ways to identify some people as different and to mark them as inferior. When you stand and look at the beauty of this campus, it proclaims that those were all falsehoods about the fact of human promise. They are self-delusions and self-deceptions, demeaning to others and sources of nothing good for the people who entertain them.

So we have three facts:  Duke is a coherent campus, and an exquisite campus, designed by a black architect in the depths of segregation.  And yet that last fact really wouldn’t carry its full meaning unless the public were aware of that fact.  But when this campus opened there was no announcement that Julian Abele had been the designer.  There were no interviews in Architecture Today. He was the silent architect; he was in the closet as the architect of Duke University, if you could put it that way.

Here is how his role became known. I got an email two days ago from David Belton, who worked as an admissions officer in the Duke Admissions Office in the late 1970’s. [To David Belton] That’s you! You were reading the application of a student named Julian Abele Cook III.  And in the place where you’re asked to say if you have any Duke alumni in your family, he said, “Well, I actually don’t have any alumni in my family”—since Duke had not had black students before the early 60s, that would have of course been hard—“but I have a connection to Duke, because my great-great uncle is Julian Abele, the person who designed Duke Chapel.”  And you said to yourself, Well, how can that be, since no one had ever heard that fact?  David, you admitted Julian Abele Cooke, he came to Duke, he was a loyal member of the class of 1983, and he is a faculty member today at the Law School of the University of Georgia.  He also wrote to me in the last few days and sends his regrets.

It was by this means that the identity of the architect began to be known.  But it took more time for this fact to become widely known. I know that you, sir [to Julian Abele Jr.], came to a celebration with President Nan Keohane of one of the anniversaries of this campus, and portraits of Julian Abele have hung in the lobby of the Allen Building and the Gothic Reading Room. But today we want to make the truth of the authorship of the beauty of this university such that no one visiting this campus can fail to know it. We’ve got a masterpiece, and we’re going to paint the name of the artist at the bottom of that masterpiece.

Today we unveil a plaque right in the middle of the university so that everyone can know how this campus came into being. In classical antiquity there was a kind of marker that bore a message that begins, “Halt, traveler!  Siste, viator!” In other words:  “Stop, I’m going to tell you something, and when I’m done telling, you’ll know something you didn’t know, and then you’re free to go on your way.” Our plaque does not use these words but it does have this function. You’re walking along, you’re talking to your friend, and then you see this gilded sign that says in large letters [reading from the plaque]: “Abele Quad – Named for Julian F. Abele, the African American architect, who between 1924 and 1950 designed all the surrounding buildings.” Take your eyes and travel around:  Do you mean some of these buildings? No, I mean all of these buildings. I helped add a  last line that had been used for Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral:  “If you seek his monument, look around.”  If you want to know what this campus is, this is the work an African American architect created in the depths of segregation. If you want to know who Julian Abele was, look around; this is his work.

Welcome and thanks to you all.