Weekend events to commemorate 50 years of black students at Duke

Oct. 03, 2013 @ 01:25 PM

The closing celebrations for Duke’s 50-year commemoration of black students at the university are scheduled for Friday through Sunday.

To Keith Daniel, event organizer, the commemoration has been more than a year in the making. The planning began in spring of 2012, and in January of this year, kicked off with a tribute to Duke’s first African-American nursing student and a Martin Luther King Jr. service, led by the Rev. William C. Turner of the Duke Divinity School. He was one of the first African-American students to attend the university.

Daniel said the stories he’s collected from African-American alum regarding their Duke experiences will stick with him throughout his lifetime. The former Duke Chapel director of community and campus engagement, Daniel said the commemoration has become his ministry.

He has listened to “the stories of people who have not been as close to Duke but now are remembering that even though there was some difficulty on some level for all of us as minorities, they really do love the university and want to see the university prosper,” Daniel said.

From its start, the commemoration has honored Duke’s first five black undergraduates, who arrived at the school in the fall of 1963. At that time, there were no black faculty members, administrators or trustees.

Mary Mitchell Harris was an honors student at Durham’s Hillside High School who knew she was meant to be a Duke student. Gene Kendall studied mechanical engineering. Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke was named the first Duke May Queen. Cassandra Smith Rush was passionate about zoology. Nathaniel White Jr. grew up three miles from campus.

Former Duke students have talked of Confederate flags waving at football games, of dealing with pranks and obscenities, of places on campus they remember, such as the “black bench” next to the West Union building on West Campus, where black students would congregate. Black alumni remember sharing a strong bond with the black employees on campus.

Daniel was an international studies student who arrived at Duke in 1986, known even then as a predominately white institution. He was the first member of his family to attend Duke and a wide receiver on the football team, then under the direction of coach Steve Spurrier.

“As a minority or a black person, most of us would get up every day and feel like we belonged, but also feel like we had to prove ourselves every day,” Daniel said.

Saturday at the Durham Performing Arts Center, the community is invited to attend “Duke Celebrates Durham: Where Great Things Happened in 1963,” a panel discussion and town hall meeting. After the discussion, Daniel said organizers will show “Negro Durham Marches On,” a documentary made in the ‘40s by thriving Durham black businesses. There also will be 15 Durham civil rights exhibits on display.

Daniel said they are hoping for about 1,000 people to attend Saturday’s events, and the stories of Duke alumni, no matter how heartbreaking or painful they may be regarding the fight for desegregation and acceptance, need to be shared.

“They needed listening to, they needed to be heard, and they needed to be celebrated,” he said.