Concluding a valuable remembrance

Oct. 04, 2013 @ 10:01 PM

Nearly a year ago, an exhibit opened in Duke’s Perkins Library with, among other artifacts, a floor-plan blueprint of the basement of Duke University’s Union Building.

An arrow superimposed on it indicated where the “Colored Men’s Toilet and Locker Room” would be.

Above that, as Neil Offen reported in The Herald-Sun last December, were yearbook-sized photos representing the class of freshmen that entered Duke in 1963,  not that long after toilets and locker rooms would have been overtly separated by race.

Most of those pictures would have looked much like any class pictures at the beginning of any school year before – white face after white face. But there, with that class, were five somewhat larger photos of black faces.

Those were the first five black undergraduates to enter Duke.

Saturday, the university wraps up a nearly year-long commemoration, not just of that momentous September day when it ceased to be a segregated university but of the 50 years of sometimes halting but mostly steady progress since in wiping out the vestiges of discrimination.

A panel discussion this afternoon at the Durham Performing Arts Center will examine not only those first black undergraduates, but also Duke’s ties to Durham during the transformational decade of the 1960s and since.

Saturday night, what the program describes as a “spectacular multimedia program” will honor “Duke’s African American legacy and future.”

The many events, celebrations and reflections of these past 10 months have been invaluable. For many younger students and community members, black and white, it has been a sobering reminder that we are not that far removed from the sometimes brutal, always degrading disenfranchisement and mistreatment of a large number of our fellow citizens.

But it also has been invaluable in reminding us – sometimes informing us -- how the change that began in 1963 helped in what Keith Daniel, in a guest column on these pages Thursday, called “Duke’s transformation from good to great.”

It has done that, and more, and has been a year whose message we hope resonates throughout the Duke and Durham communities for years to come. We must never forget the struggle and fortitude of those first students, nor what has been accomplished since – nor the progress yet to be made.