Senator tells Duke students to follow "the first five"

Apr. 13, 2013 @ 08:17 PM

U.S. Sen. William "Mo" Cowan called on Duke University graduates and undergraduates to help level the playing field so all children have the opportunity to get a quality education.

"Our government from local city halls, yes, to the halls of Congress, must commit to identifying the failing schools and allocating the necessary resources so that every student in every state gets the world-class education that we are obligated to supply," Cowan told those in the audience at Page Auditorium on the Duke campus Saturday.

Cowan was the keynote speaker during a special event for Duke Alumni Weekend called "Celebrating the Past, Charting the Future: Commemorating 50 Years of Black Students at Duke."

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick appointed Cowan on Feb. 1 to fill the vacancy left in the senate when John Kerry resigned to become Secretary of the State.

Cowan, who grew up in Yadkinville, graduated from Duke in 1991.

It was a perfect spring day on the Duke campus as alumni who returned to the university for the weekend chatted with old friends, roamed the campus and attended various activities, including remembering the year of 1963 when five black high school graduates enrolled in Duke University.

Other black students already already been enrolled in graduate and professional schools at Duke, and they too were honored at the ceremony.

Three of "the first five" who entered Duke as freshmen in 1963 attended the commemoration, including Gene Kendall, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke and Nathaniel B. White, Jr. The families of Mary Mitchell Harris and Cassandra Smith Rush, who have died since attending Duke, attended in their honor.

The first black graduates of graduate and professional schools - including Donna Allen Harris, W. Delano Meriwether, Ida Stephens Owens, Anthony Oyewole, David Robinson II, Jean Gaillard Spaulding, Catherine Gibson Taylor and Matthew Zimmerman - were also honored.

In his speech, Cowan weaved personal memories of being a black student at Duke into the history of integration at Duke. He recalled coming to Durham and meeting black students and professionals from all over the world. They helped him enlarge his perspective on his black identity, he said.

He laughed about the Class of '48 bench, known on campus as the Black Bench, where black students gathered to socialize, plan, share notes and gossip. It was said if you stood at the bench long enough, every black student who ever attended Duke would come by, he said.

It was a port in the storm where black students could find support. The gatherings at the bench transformed the experience for so many black students, he said.

But it was "the first five" and the first black graduate students, who had to turn to each other for comfort and healing and who tore down barriers through word and deed, he said.

"So many of us are beholden to the first five," he said.

Duke has evolved, Cowan said, but he wondered aloud about how far. He referred to a  fraternity party in February in which student guests mimicked stereotypical Asian speech and dress.

Cowan told the audience that despite the doors that were opened in 1963, there are many high school students who will not be prepared academically to go to college and others who won't be able to afford to go to college.

He urged students to consider devoting their lives to helping and lifting up others, just as the first five did.

He spoke of the education gap and said it appears to be growing.

"Every child in this country, regardless of the color of their skin or where they grew up or what their household  income may be, deserves an equal opportunity at the fundamental promise of good education, like our first five received," Cowan said.

Academic preparation is directly tied to financial stability, he said.

"The sooner we recognize our shortcomings and demand action, the sooner we will make 2013 the tipping point for education equality, just as the first five and their generation did in seeking justice for all," Cowan said.

Grant programs must continue to help students pay for the increasing cost of a college education, he said.

"We must address the cost of a quality education before a generation of students are crushed under the weight of debt or altogether denied the dream pursued by our first five," Cowan said.

He encouraged the students to go forward with passion and commitment.

Duke University President Richard Brodhead hosted the event and told survivors from the first five and gathered alumni that he was proud of what they had become.

"I swell with pride when I think that each of you have gone on to such a significant and varied life," he said.