Exhibit shows Duke's road to desegregation

Dec. 07, 2012 @ 10:56 PM

An arrow is superimposed on the floor-plan blueprint of the basement of Duke University’s Union Building.

The arrow indicates where the “Colored Men’s Toilet and Locker Room” is located.

Above the blueprint in the glass exhibition case in Perkins Library are small yearbook-style photos of the class that entered Duke in the fall of 1963. There’s white face after white face after white face, until, almost disconcertingly, there are somewhat larger photos of five black faces.

Those faces — of Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, Mary Mitchell Harris, Cassandra Smith Rush, Gene Kendall and Nathaniel White Jr., the first black undergraduates at Duke — marked the true beginning of the university’s move away from the days of segregated toilets.

Those faces are integral to the new exhibit, “The Road to Desegregation at Duke,” filling three glass cases outside the Biddle Rare Book Room, that is part of the university’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of its integration.

Mixing historic photographs, yellowing correspondence, fliers and newspapers, the exhibit traces the slow, sometimes tortuous path the university followed from an all-white school to an integrated campus.

“When we were thinking of the exhibit, we realized that we didn’t have much material specifically about the first five students who integrated Duke,” said university archivist Valerie Gillispie, who curated the exhibit. “That’s when we decided to take the long view.”

It was important for the exhibit to show, Gillispie explained, both what came before the first five set foot on campus and what has happened since.

“We thought it was essential to indicate that there were many black employees and staff who were on campus earlier, who helped build, design and run the campus,” she said. “And that there were many white students who pushed for integration before the administration finally followed their lead.”

It was not an easy fight.

The first part of the exhibit shows a 1950 letter to the president of Duke from Virgil Stroud, a black World War II veteran who wanted to be admitted for graduate study in law and government at Duke.

A letter in response came quickly from President A. Hollis Edens, noting that Duke had a “policy concerning requests similar to yours” and “there has been no change in [that] policy.”

But change did come, albeit slowly.

The second part of the exhibit shows how the enrollment of the first black students at Duke went comparatively smoothly — compared, at least, to what was going on elsewhere in the nation. There are photos of riots at the University of Mississippi and police crackdowns on protestors.

“We can’t really imagine what the five students had to go through, but we wanted to give people a sense of what it was like to be one of them,” Gillispie said. “While it was quiet here, it took a lot of bravery to do what they did amid all the turmoil in the country.”

The final part of the exhibit shows the ways in which black students have shaped Duke since 1963. The display case has photos and documents from late-’60s protests and the takeover over Duke’s administration building in 1969. But it also illustrates the rise of black fraternities and sororities, the beginnings of the department of African-American studies and the explosion of cultural activities spearheaded by the Black Student Alliance.

“We wanted to make sure this was about the process of desegregation and not only about protests,” Gillispie said. “It was important to show how desegregation changed the campus — and is still changing the campus.”