DIBS Hosts Panel on Black Experience and Activism at Duke
On January 19th, 2022, the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) was honored to host a virtual panel about the 1969 Allen Building occupation at Duke and the experience of black students, faculty, and staff on campus both in the 1960’s and now.
Ted Segal '77, JD, retired lawyer and author of the book Point of Reckoning on the history surrounding the takeover, shared an overview of his book and the history of black student activists at Duke before and after the university began to desegregate in 1963. Following this, Adriane Lentz-Smith, Ph.D., associate professor and associate chair of history at Duke, facilitated a Q&A with Segal.
DIBS associate director Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, Ph.D. then led a discussion with Brianna Johnson ’25 and Noah McKee ’22, both current undergraduate students and Abele Ambassadors from the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, who discussed their experience at Duke as current Black students. Doha Ali ’21, one of Duke’s Young Trustees, then shed light on her experience from the perspective of student-turned-fiduciary at Duke.
Finally, Peter Klopfer, Ph.D., emeritus professor of biology at Duke, recalled his time at Duke since joining in the late 1950’s, his anti-racism activism, and first-hand experience of the 1969 occupation.
At the end, all the panelists provided important advice and perspectives about how to keep pushing for change and inclusivity for not just black students, but also faculty and staff at Duke.
Below is a selection of quotes from the event. You can watch the entire discussion here via the DIBS YouTube channel.
Overview of Point of Reckoning and the history of black activism and desegregation at Duke University in the 1960s
Duke was segregated. There were no black students, no black faculty, no black university administrative or clerical positions…It is accurate to say that, from the outset every aspect of the Duke experience was developed by white people for the benefit of an all-white student body administration faculty and alumni.
The attitude of many was that by simply admitting these [black] youngsters, the university had done enough. It was up to the students to fit in through what one Dean described to me as a “natural kind of amalgamation.”
Black student leader Chuck Hopkins commented that Duke was not ready to have black students here. They didn't realize that integration meant they had to make some changes too. According to Hopkins, the administration's view was that bringing us to Duke was like bringing the natives into civilization. So black students entered an institution where none of their culture, history, or communities were represented, and none of their distinctive needs met.
After organizing the Duke Afro American society in the spring of 1967, they presented the university with a list of concerns. The students wanted their historically white institution to make changes, so that Duke could be a place where they too could thrive.
The story in Point of Reckoning is the story of the struggle over what type of institution Duke would be. Would Duke remain a school where the Duke experience was tailored to meet only the needs of white students, administrators, faculty, alumni, and trustees? Or would it become a diverse, inclusive, and equitable institution, where everyone could flourish. How willing was it to dismantle the plantation system under which Duke’s nonacademic employees labored?
Ultimately, the question posed in Point of Reckoning, is whether Duke rose to the moral challenge posed by desegregation and thus lived up to its lofty aims.
Adriane Lentz-Smith: One of the other things that comes through in the book is the way that the university seemed to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate forms of protest or legitimate and illegitimate protesters.
[In 1968], a predominantly white group of students launched what became called the Silent Vigil, which was a two-day occupation of the president's house, followed by a four day and night sit in on the main quad that ultimately reached 1500 people and basically shut down the university.
10 months later, you had the occupation of the Allen Building by black students who had a feeling that they had exhausted all of the remedies that they could figure and…to take this extremely dramatic and dangerous act by occupying parts of the Allen Building…What you see when you put these two events alongside is when white students showed up at Douglas Knight’s house…he invited them in. The Durham police were called, but they were called out to protect the white students from reactionary elements that were threatening to-- you know-- throw bombs or whatever.
When conflict occurred in 1969 [with the Black students], there were no personal relationships that the administrators could call upon to help negotiate out of that very dangerous situation, and so it took Duke administrators one hour into the occupation to decide that the black students would be given a one-hour ultimatum. If they didn't leave, following that hour-ultimatum, the Duke police, the State police, and ultimately National Guard backups would be and were called in to campus to remove them using force.
The white students were these administrators in many ways. They could see their sons and daughters in them, but the black students, because they had never gotten to know them and understand them, really just looked like militants or terrorists and were treated just much, much more harshly.
Lentz-Smith: Almost 50 years on, Duke started to memorialize these events as part of a kind of narrative of itself and its growing and its progress…What do you think of the way that we've come to understand or to talk about the vigil and the Allen Building takeover?
When I arrived as a freshman at Duke [in 1973], the narrative had become, “Yes, Duke had deep racial problems, but these protests occurred, they were shocked to the system, and then Terry Sanford was brought in, and now you know, things are basically fine.” Duke kind of encoded and encapsulated with these events with amazing speed…My hope is that the book will help humanize and help counter that really comforting narrative that grew up so quickly.
Lentz-Smith: I wondered if writing the book and knowing the history of protest and reaction at Duke affected how you read or how you experienced the so called “racial reckoning” in the summer of 2020, the responses to police violence and injustice and the counter reaction to those protests?
Well, it certainly did. And it particularly did in the sense of bringing me a deeper understanding of what real change would look like if it occurred. Having worked in corporate America, I know what it looks like when an institution takes as a priority, a problem.
They put their best people on it, they invest in in remedial solutions they focus on it every day they don't let it drop. That's what institutional change requires. It's immensely difficult and so ultimately, I came away feeling that for Duke to be able--or for any institution to be able--to truly say diversity and inclusion is a core value, they need to do more than say that and have diversity training. They need to really reexamine the university's priorities, financially, and invest in the types of programs that are necessary to create a more diverse and inclusive institution.
Nicole Schramm-Sapyta: There was no Mary Lou Williams Center when this first intrepid group of black students came to the campus. How does the Mary Lou Williams Center shape your experience here at Duke?
Noah McKee ‘22
I’ve spent every day of my undergraduate career coming into the Center at least once…The Lou has absolutely shaped my experience. It's a place that I come to study. It's a place to come to fellowship. It's a place that I come to get exposed to programming and networking, etc. The people that frequent the center and even the people that just drop in every now and then have shaped my Duke experience and made it what it has been. It's definitely the main factor that's been at play.
Brianna Johnson ‘25
I don't have as much experience being that I have only had one full semester here, but I've spent every single day so far at the Lou. It's a part of my schedule. I wake up, I go to the Lou, greet everyone, talk. I do my homework there. I've met so many of my friends there, including Noah and the Lou has just given me like an opportunity to feel like I have a family at Duke…The Lou is like my home away from home.
Schramm-Sapyta: In the book, there's so much from the trustees putting pressure on President Knight saying, “You got to get this under control,” and some of the overtly racist statements come from the trustees…Obviously, there were no young trustees and certainly no young trustees of color back then, what is it like to be on the board of trustees and is your voice heard?
Doha Ali ‘21
Thankfully, being on the board now, I don’t have to be the first person of color. I’m not the first Muslim on the board. We know that the stories of the first black students on campus - the first have to do so much more than just existing, and I have to carry the weight of transforming space to be welcoming not only for themselves, but also for those that come after them. I have been very lucky to have some board members who did that for us.
Coming to the board has been a bit of a transition. As a student, I was very much integrated with student life undergraduate experience. I knew what was happening on the ground there. But then my service on the board, I really have to take that wide lens and remember that I’m serving as a fiduciary of the university and not just as a representative for undergraduate students. It's forced me to go into spaces that I've never been in, like the hospital system and talk to the nursing staff and hear what they have to say about their time at Duke and just talk to individuals outside of the student body which I really know well. That has been just great to take a step back to stepping up on the board .
I'm disrupting the boardroom by simply being there and being who I am and I know that myself and the other board members from these underrepresented minority groups are in that space and are disrupting that space. But we're also being welcomed by our peers. It's been a good experience, overall.
Schramm-Sapyta: [Peter], you were here at Duke in the 70’s and you actively engaged with President Knight. Can you tell us a little bit more about your interactions with him? What some of the pressures that that he was under and that you were feeling as a progressive person on campus here?
We became fairly good friends, but I was struck by the fact that he was clearly without any experience in the world of minorities…He simply could not imagine that there was any particular problem and when students who have previously been excluded was suddenly told “Well, yeah we will we're willing to consider your admission.” I was really puzzled by his total inability to put himself in the place of these others…He simply could not put himself in a position of these students whom we are now admitting.
I think Peter’s characterization of Knight, based on my research, is exactly correct. I think it emanated from how he viewed kind of what a university was supposed to be. He did not see, because he had this very detached view of racial issues, he did not see you know racial justice as a core value of the institution even though he would say he did from time to time.
Schramm-Sapyta: How do you, looking back all these years, evaluate that relationship between the very entrenched power structure and the racial dynamics? How do you how do you place that in context?
Millennials and Gen Z tend to talk about boomers derisively these days, but to go back and look at this as this kind of moment of a population boom in which people who are emerging as adults are coming to understand that they have a capacity to affect power structures. That the board of trustees are this big ambient strong thing but they're not the only power at play. This is partially about a generational assertion of their capacity to shape the world the way that they want it to be shaped, so I think that's one way to contextualize that.
Schramm-Sapyta: One of the topics that comes up in our Inclusion and Power Dynamics workshops all the time is, “How do you find power when you're in a low authority situation?” Do you think they effectively used the low power strategies that were available at the time?
I think so. And I’ll say, I hate committee meetings, but in defense of committee meetings, there is a way in which institutions structure themselves. There is a logic for getting things done, that gets a lot of stuff done right. The day-to-day work pretty much functions that way. But sometimes the things that need to get done aren't getting done within those structures and when people come with different ideas for how to be effective, then there ought to be sort of venues for them to be heard and when there aren't those venues, then people will make them.
Schramm-Sapyta: Do you have any advice for members of the audience? We’ve talked about how far Duke has come, what would you say Duke needs to do now to continue to work? What can we in the audience continue to do to support creating a truly inclusive and diverse university?
There are [black staff] that have worked at Duke for 50 plus years, people who have worked at Duke for five years, who are, I’m not in a position to say that they would say that it's still one of the worst jobs that they've had, but nobody knows, because we haven't asked them just now. That's one of those things that's a resource that we need to tap into, without a doubt, to get a feel for what campus life is like for the people who aren’t necessarily as lucky as myself or Brianna…
One thing that the book does really well is helping to create an institutional memory of the university. I think that is really helpful for student activism and grassroots movements.
…Valerie Gillespie, the university archivist, is amazing, and the resources of the university archives… There are places to go at Duke to learn about Duke. But also, we need you to keep adding to the primary source material.
Also, just as a larger point about institutions; as we know, institutions are dynamic. Student populations turnover. People come and go and yet, somehow, there is a thing that is the institution that remains, and so we're always creating an institutional culture we're always setting priorities; we're always making it be the thing that we want it to be.
A Black Duke workers’ oral history project would be really fantastic way to actually begin to pull things into the light.
I think embedded in what [Doha and Adriane are] both saying is for a lot of us in the audience, who are faculty and staff who are not turning over every four years, keep that institutional memory alive and keep the progress in the direction where we want it to go keep welcoming those new students and keep making them feel safe.
Maybe another takeaway is to for those of us who have this privilege to use it in a positive way for those who don't have the privilege, for those who can't risk their livelihood because it's so it's meager to begin with, who can't risk their livelihood by protesting.
I know that Duke is always trying to do the best they can to promote diversity and inclusion, but it gets to the point where if we're going to keep promoting something, there has to be a way for it to actually be executed…We have all of these diversity inclusion statements, but what are we really doing to actually contribute to the change…?
There needs to be an addition to the diversity and inclusion statement to include the faculty, not just the students, because the faculty and the people in the higher-level positions, they have the power to make the change that we really want to see. And of course, we have the power as well, but like the real power.
Panelists (in order of appearance)
Nicole L. Schramm-Sapyta (moderator) is the associate director of and associate professor of the practice in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, as well as the co-director of the Bass Connections Brain & Society Theme.
Theodore (“Ted”) D. Segal '77 is a lawyer and serves as a member of the board of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He was previously board chair of the Children’s Law Center, the largest provider of pro bono legal services in the District of Columbia. He lives in Maryland (from Segal’s website).
Adriane D. Lentz-Smith is Associate Professor and Associate Chair in Duke's department of History where she teaches courses on the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives, Modern America, and History in Fact and Fiction (from Lentz-Smith’s Duke@Scholar page).
Brianna Johnson ’25 is an Abele Ambassador for the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, where she serves to promote the center and support black students at Duke. Johnson is currently planning to pursue a degree in global health and public policy.
Noah McKee ’22 is an Abele Ambassador for the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, where he serves to promote the center and support black students at Duke. McKee is graduating this spring with his degree in politic science and African American studies.
Doha Ali ’21 is one of Duke’s Young Trustees, and a recent Duke grad who earned her bachelor of science in economics, and her bachelor of arts in sociology.
Peter Klopfer – is professor Emeritus of Biology at Duke University and began his career at Duke in August 1958 before the university integrated. He protested for racial justice in the 1960’s even being arrested at one point.