Seven Honored by Cook Society for Service to Duke and the Wider Community

Part of the Anti-Racism Scholarship, Learning and Activism at Duke Series
2021 Cook Society Award winners, clockwise from top left: Charles Becton, De’Ja Wood, Michael Cary Jr., Nolan Smith, Tom Bonfield, Ajenai Clemmons, and Richard Powell.
2021 Cook Society Award winners, clockwise from top left: Charles Becton, De’Ja Wood, Michael Cary Jr., Nolan Smith, Tom Bonfield, Ajenai Clemmons, and Richard Powell.

Charles Becton was a trailblazer advocating for racial and social justice on many fronts: as a member of the NC Court of Appeals, as a noted law professor and as the first African-American man to hold the position as president of the North Carolina Bar Association.

His pioneering work was recognized Tuesday night with the Distinguished Service Award at the annual Samuel DuBois Cook Society Awards, held virtually this year. The mission of the Cook Society is to recognize, celebrate, and affirm the presence of African-American students, faculty, and staff at Duke.

Becton was one of seven members of the Duke and Triangle community who were honored for their scholarship and community activism that followed in the spirit of Samuel DuBois Cook, a noted scholar and activist who was the first Black hired and tenured on the Duke faculty and later served as a university trustee.

A native of Morehead City, North Carolina, and an alumnus of Duke Law School, Becton served as a litigator for 30 years and quickly became known as one of the best trial attorneys in the country.  He was president of the NC Bar Association in 2008, the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers in. 1995 and the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers in 1980. Gov. Jim Hunt appointed him to the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 1981. He served nine years on the court.

He spent the next three decades teaching law at a variety of institutions including Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And at NC Central School of Law. He also served as interim chancellor at NC Central and at Elizabeth City State University.

In addition to Becton, other Cook Society Awards went to:

  • Ajenai Clemmons, a Ph.D. candidate in public policy at Duke with a concentration in political science.  Her research focuses on how to improve police-community relations. She was also cited for her volunteer work centered on leadership development for girls and women and for young people in marginalized communities.
  • Nolan Smith, a former All-America on Duke’s men’s basketball team and current director of basketball operations and player development. In Durham, Smith is widely known for his activism and community outreach efforts. This past summer he helped lead multiple peaceful protests around the city, attended a summit with Durham public officials and was asked by Mayor Steve Schewel to serve as a community leader. On August 27, Smith led an on-campus demonstration that brought together hundreds of Blue Devil student-athletes, staff and coaches in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The work led The George H.W. Bush Points of to recognize Smith for his community service this year.
  • De’Ja Wood, a Duke senior studying African and African-American Studies, Education and Human Rights. At Duke, she has served as president of the Duke Chapter of the NAACP and vice president of the Black Student Alliance, as well as many university advisory boards. She helped start the Mitchell-White House, Duke’s first Black cultural living and learning community, where she taught a house course on the history of Black people at Duke. Wood also spearheaded multiple community service activities including a voter registration drives and organizing efforts supporting low-income housing communities.

The Cook Society presented two Raymond Gavins Distinguished Faculty Awards:

  • Michael Cary Jr., associate professor in the School of Nursing. Being one of the relatively few Ph.D. prepared African-American males in nursing in the US, he mentors students as well as junior faculty in writing for publication in the aeras of diversity, equity and inclusion. His research focuses on improving post-acute care and rehabilitation outcomes among vulnerable populations, including racial/ethnic minorities, older adults, and those with multiple chronic conditions.
  • Richard Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History. One of the leading international authorities on African American art and culture, he has organized numerous arts exhibitions on the Harlem Renaissance, art at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and a retrospective of the great Archibald Motley. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and won numerous awards. His latest book, “Going There: Black Visual Satire” that explores satirical art by Black artists from the Harlem Renaissance to the present.

The society also presented a Special Recognition Award to former Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield. Bonfield retired this past October after four decades of service in local government, including more than 35 years as Durham city manager.