Duke alum, employees remember their fight against racism
Oct. 05, 2013 @ 09:52 PM

In 1963, the black employees on Duke campus, custodians, cafeteria workers, receptionists, the men and women behind the scenes, became second families to the first classes of black students at Duke.

Joyce Johnson, Duke Class of 1968, held up the microphone during the final celebration Saturday of the 50-year commemoration of black students at Duke. She paused, and then, to the surprise of the audience, began to sing, her voice quiet as the sweet vibrato enveloped the Durham Performing Arts Center.

“I need you, you need me, we’re all a part of God’s body. Stand with me, agree with me, we’re all a part of God’s body.”

1963 was the year of the black student on Duke campus. Five undergraduates led the desegregation charge, during the year when the Birmingham church bombing and J.F.K.’s assassination made headlines.

“Had it not been for my home community, Richmond, Va., particularly Southside, Va., or for the Durham community, I would not have survived my four years at Duke University,” Johnson said.

“But thank God I did.”

At the start of the event, “Duke Celebrates Durham: Where Great Things Happened in 1963,” the black curtain rose to reveal the “100 Men in Black” chorus, from elementary boys to elderly men dressed in black suits and ties, lined along the risers. With booming voices, they plunged into “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

“Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last, where the white gleam of our star is cast.”

Introductions were made by Durham Mayor Bill Bell and Duke President Richard Brodhead, and Mark Anthony Neal of Duke’s African & African American Studies led five panelists in a discussion.

Dr. Brenda Armstrong, a Duke class of 1970 graduate who’s now a doctor of pediatrics cardiology and director of admissions at Duke University Medical Center, said she grew up in Rocky Mount, a town so fiercely segregated in those days that they couldn’t even use the local hospital. Her brother had needed to be born by C-section, but the hospital wouldn’t help her mother.

“And when people ask me now why feel the way that I do about equality and health care, it was born that moment,” Armstrong said. “And when it was time for me to go to school, the people in my community basically said to me it’s time for you to take some of that anger somewhere else. And I came to Duke.”

But when she arrived at school, she faced immediate confrontations about her race. On the first day of classes, she went into the bathroom to wash her face, brush her teeth, and a white female student came in and put a hand on her face.

“This is the closest I’ve been to a colored person, and I wanted to see if it came off,” the girl said to Armstrong.

Nathaniel White Jr., one of the first five black students to arrive at Duke, said even though he grew up four miles away from university, it seemed like another city.

“There was no relationship,” White said. “It was a complete discovery. But what happened, of course, was that for the people who worked there, they were people who were familiar to me. I can’t express to you how much the town that I lived in as Durham and the town that I moved to as Duke were such separate enterprises.”

Superior Court Judge Elaine Bushfan, a graduate of N.C. Central University in both 1984 and 1991, said she grew up on the West end of Durham, adjacent to Duke University campus along the Chapel Hill Road divide.

Even though she was attending college 20 years later than the 1963 undergrads, there was still the feeling that she need not apply to Duke.

“As a black person, you went to Duke to work,” Bushfan said. When she tried applying for a permanent job at Duke, after holding a position in temporary services, a human resources director at the university told her that an administrative assistant position was the best she could do at that time with a NCCU degree.

“It was still very much a plantation,” she said, “where black people worked at a very low level ... Duke was not my friend.”

Then there were challenges to overcome in the classroom.

Johnson said she would receive D grades in English composition when she helped another classmate, who would receive an A-.

I was “sitting in my German class with mostly folks that we used to call the jocks, and I sat with the one other female who was a Jewish young woman,” Johnson said. “She spoke German at home with her parents. We both did well. I had German in high school. Yet we got lower grades than folks who did not do any studying or what have you, but they were on the football team.”

“I got a D+ on my first English paper, and I had sent it to my mother, who, by the way, had a Ph.D. in English literature from Columbia but taught at a high school,” Armstrong said, “and the note on my little nicely written essay was, ‘You’re not capable of this type of work.’”

The Rev. Dr. William C. Turner, Duke Class of 1970 and professor of the practice of homiletics at Duke Divinity School, said as students, they would take to local churches to find support and a second home.

“When we got there (to church), we found out that the people who were there had children just like us, and they understood us implicitly,” Turner said. “Not only did they understand us implicitly, but in order to survive at Duke in those days, you had to put a crust over you ... You had to act mean or half-crazy. ... These people could see right through us.”