New exhibit highlights dramatic Duke civil rights moment
Sep. 12, 2013 @ 10:24 PM

Dr. Brenda Armstrong relives the Allen Building Takeover every day.

She and about 60 other black Duke students, on Feb. 13, 1969, stormed into the Allen Building on campus and took over. They renamed it the “Malcolm X Liberation School” as policemen outside put on gas masks, white protestors waved Confederate flags and supporters guarded the doors.   

The students issued 13 demands of the university, including the creation of a black dorm and a department of African-American studies. They wanted a black student union and an end to police harassment.

Black and white photos of the civil rights protest and yellowed student newspaper articles now line the walls of the Allen Building today, paying homage to the 60 who risked their lives to stand up for equality on campus.

On Thursday, Armstrong and others who lived the takeover talked with students who have only witnessed civil rights protests on the black-and-white page.

Caitlin Johnson, the exhibit’s 23-year-old curator and a 2012 Duke public policy graduate, said she learned about the takeover her sophomore year in a Duke African-American literature class.

By her senior year, the civil rights takeover was mentioned in her classes again, resulting in “blank stare after blank stare, people didn’t know about it,” Johnson said.

She pointed down the cream-colored hallway Thursday in the Allen Building. This is where the 60 students walked and took over the Central Records Office 44 years ago.

“This is a narrative that’s important for all of Duke and the legacy of all students,” she said. “The university is a much more open and inclusive place for everyone.”

Her grandfather, a black man growing up in the 1940s, looked for a university that would let him to conduct education research and use its library during segregation. Out of the list of universities he asked, only Duke and UNC opened their doors. He decided on Duke.

“When I came to Duke, I had my ears open for other stories like my grandfather’s,” Johnson said to a room crammed with 100 people. “I think, would I have had the courage to put my safety on the line and my future at Duke, and beyond? I would hope that answer is yes.”

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 her sister at UNC-Greensboro at the time feared Armstrong would be killed. The students, in-between attending classes at the Allen Building, would memorize the floor plan – The doors, the windows, the routes that would keep them safe.

The Rev. William C. Turner, also a takeover participant and Duke 1970 grad, also visited the exhibit on Thursday. He was one of the first black football players at Duke, and he said he ended up leaving the team after standing alone on the sidelines. The black player who stayed on the team was treated like “he had poison on him.”

“It is absolutely frightening to see police with their helmets and their masks so that the tear gas won’t get to them,” Turner was quoted as saying in the exhibit. “… Students were screaming and hollering, and some I suppose were yelling and some were cursing and throwing the canisters back at them.”

Tom Campbell, co-owner of the Regulator Bookshop on Ninth Street, said he was the associate editor of the Chronicle, the student newspaper, when the takeover went down.

A few of the 60 students contacted the Chronicle the night before the takeover, sharing their plans and asking for help in contacting the national media.

“(They) thought that if we got national media coverage right away, there would be less chance for police to be there,” Campbell said.

“White students were at the doors trying to protect the black students from the police coming in,” Campbell added. “(The police) had kind of come prepared for a fight…People were throwing flowers at them, kind of making fun at them.”

And that’s how police began to use the tear gas, he said.

Exhibit photos are on display of a destroyed police car and a student with a bloodied brow. Twenty-five people were treated in the Duke Hospital emergency room after the tear-gassing.

The administration gave the black students a 4:30 p.m. ultimatum to exit the building, according to the exhibit, and police and national guardsmen began to gather in Duke Gardens in preparations to take the building back by force.

But before police could storm in, students filed out at 5:45 p.m., chanting, “It ain’t over yet.”

Duke President Richard Brodhead took a moment to say a few words in the lobby of the Allen Building on Thursday, saying that the incoming freshmen, who were born on average in 1995, have no idea what it’s like to see tanks roll down the street or experience tear gas on a university campus.

 “Ain’t it funny, how time slips away,” Turner said. His father, who grew up next to East Campus, said the only blacks he used to see on the university were chauffeurs in hats.

“Sometimes it’s the unadvised action that really makes a difference,” Turner said. “Young people had been thoroughly prepared for a moment that they could not comprehend.”

Duke allowed itself to be taken, Armstrong said. Terry Sanford, who followed Douglas Knight as Duke president after Knight’s resignation, apologized to the black students and was a “brilliant statesman from the South that’s so far ahead of his time,” she added.  

People will use the lessons learned during this takeover and apply it to the next 50 years, she said. Then, Duke and the country will see where it stands in 2063.

“I won’t be here in 2063,” Armstrong said. “In 2063, I want to know if it’s important to be black on this campus.”

If race is a decider, a definition.

“In helping Duke grow up, we grew up,” she said.