‘The story has to be told’

Duke commemorates its integration 50 years later
Jan. 26, 2013 @ 05:26 PM

Over a few days at the end of last week, Gene Kendall, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke and Nat White Jr. trudged around the Triangle, doing radio and television interviews, meeting with the press and generally being feted for what they did 50 years ago.

They were supposed to be the centerpiece of a grand reception Friday night at the Nasher Museum of Art that ultimately was canceled because of the wintry weather and treacherous roads. 

But more honors will be forthcoming for the three surviving members of the first class of black undergraduates at Duke University. The planned reception was only the kickoff of nine months of celebratory commemoration of Duke’s integration.

Over the course of the academic year, there will be exhibits, lectures, an academic symposium, presentations, film screenings, a two-day music festival, a Durham/Duke event on civil rights and social gatherings focused on the school’s integration. There’s already an elaborate web site — “Celebrating the Past, Charting the Future” — that features a photo gallery and a memory wall.

At first, Reuben-Cooke admits she had mixed feelings about all the to-do being made.

“It made me feel like a relic of some sort,” she said with a smile the other day. “It made me feel a little bit old.”

But then, her daughter said something that resonated with Reuben-Cooke.

“She said it’s important to take stock, to look at where we’ve come from and where we are,” Reuben-Cooke related. “And it’s important that Duke is doing it. People take notice when Duke does something.”

Duke was late to integration, one of the last major universities to desegregate. By the time the first class of five black undergraduates — the three survivors, along with Mary Mitchell Harris and Cassandra Smith Rush — entered the school in the late summer of 1963, most public universities in the South and many private schools had already admitted African Americans. 

“In a way it’s ironic that you are celebrating the last of the big four schools to integrate,” White acknowledged. “Duke waited too long. I find myself in that same kind of quandary — a lot of hoopla for what was a very lengthy pregnancy.”

But, White added, while Duke may have been slow to integrate, its decision to do so had far-reaching consequences.

“It was a very meaningful event,” he said. “It meant Duke began moving from being a regional school to becoming a national and now, even international, school. Integrating put Duke on the road to becoming a truly major university.”

And when Duke did integrate after other schools, White said, it was no long what he called momentous, and it was prepared.

“Yes, there were some negatives,” he said. “It was lonely, and we had no community. But all in all, there was not a whole lot of outward expression of difficulties. Duke was ready to help us make it. They had taken their time and learned from other schools’ experiences.”

That decision to admit black students 50 years ago, Kendall agreed, was “terribly important” and the event deserves to be recalled because “Duke is now uniquely positioned as a result. It is nationally known, and it needs to be known for something other than championship basketball teams.”

Noting the anniversary, he added, “gives the three of us who are still alive an opportunity to do some linking with the community at large. The story has to be told. And the only people who could tell it are the Duke folks.”

There’s an excitement about telling the story, suggested Reuben-Cooke.  “The Duke community is coming together because of this,” she said. “The younger African-American students are coming up to us and saying thank you, thank you. They’ve had their challenges, too, and they are happy we are here, that we came through here.”

Kendall, who left Duke after his sophomore year and ultimately graduated from the University of Kansas, hadn’t been back to Durham in decades until last spring for an alumni event. He said that before then, he never felt the need to return.

But when he came to campus in April, he wandered with White into the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, and “I remember the young man there at the desk just about freaked out.”

“You are the Fabulous Five,” the young student told Kendall and White. More students gathered and everyone started high-fiving the two pioneers. It took them 45 minutes to make their way across campus.

“That sealed it for me,” Kendall said. “This is important. This ninth-month celebration is what Duke ought to do.”

Then he paused for a moment. “We may not be here that much longer and somebody might want to hear this story,” Kendall said. “Duke deserves to be allowed to tell its story.”