Senator to speak at Duke commemoration

Mar. 18, 2013 @ 06:54 PM

 Thanks to a winter storm, Duke University was unable to hold a major public event to launch its commemoration of the first black undergraduates entering the school 50 years ago.

But it’s planning a big final event for the year of commemoration, featuring an alumnus, U.S. Sen. William “Mo” Cowan of Massachusetts.

Cowan, who graduated from Duke in 1991, will deliver a keynote address April 13 in Page Auditorium, during the university’s reunion weekend.

Cowan’s talk will highlight the contributions of Duke’s African-American community — students, alumni, faculty and staff. The three surviving members of the first class of black undergraduate students, Gene Kendall, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke and Nat White Jr., are expected to attend, as will several of the first students to integrate the university’s graduate and professional schools.

“As a proud alumnus, it’s an honor to be a part of acknowledging Duke University’s outstanding effort to cultivate a diverse community for their students both inside and outside of the classroom,” Cowan said.

“But of even deeper importance and measure of personal gratitude is the opportunity to celebrate the courage and strength of the young men and women who joined that first integrated class in 1963. I am excited to return to Durham to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first black students at Duke. They paved the way for the young black men and women who followed them, and their burden has been my gain.”

Kendall, Reuben-Cooke and White were scheduled to appear in January at a public reception at the Nasher Art Museum launching the nine-month commemoration. But sleet, snow and freezing rain caused dangerous road conditions and led to the event’s cancellation. Nearly 700 people had registered to attend.

A Yadkinville, North Carolina, native with a degree in sociology from Duke, Cowan was recently sworn in as a U.S. senator representing Massachusetts, filling John Kerry’s vacant seat. His interim term ends June 25. He is the first African-American to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate since 1978.  

Cowan is the former chief of staff to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. After Duke, Cowan received his J.D. from Northeastern University School of Law and practiced civil litigation as an associate and later as a partner in the Boston office of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C.

Cowan will speak at 2 p.m. in Page. The talk is free and open to the public, although tickets are required. To get tickets, visit (a $6 online service charge applies). Light refreshments will be served in the Great Hall on West Campus following the address.