Duke and Durham -- where great things happened in 1963

Oct. 02, 2013 @ 03:27 PM

When I matriculated to Duke in 1986, I prayed a simple prayer:  “Lord, help me to make the most of this amazing place.” 

Of course, I had no idea how that prayer would come to pass.  And, I certainly didn’t expect to abide at Duke 27 years and still be in school.  I had other, “higher” ambitions.  Or, so I thought. 

When students ask me what it was like for me to attend Duke, I immediately tell them I had a distinct advantage.  Though I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., my family is from Durham and Oxford.   From the time I was 6 or 7 through high school, I spent every summer in Durham bouncing between grandma Rosa’s (Daniel) house on Fayetteville Street, grandma Daye’s house on Angier Avenue, Aunt Mary Ann and Uncle Fred’s (Ruffin) home on Tuggle Street off Barbee Road.  My family roots are so deep in Durham that I’m not too surprised that my life has taken the course it has.  I am so proud to be a Durham resident.

Going to Duke was simply going home.  Yet, like most college students I had to find my way, declare my major, decide upon my career, etc.  The trials, tears and triumphs of my experience as a Duke student where thoroughly enriched by Durham friends and family many of whom worked at Duke.  Whenever, I needed to escape the academic pressures, sense of isolation and separation of the Duke experience as young black man, all I had to do was pick up the phone and call my cousin Michael (Ruffin) and say, “Come git me man.”

When I listen to the stories of the black undergraduate and graduate students who led Duke’s transformation from good to great in the 1960s, the theme of beautiful, caring, courageous Durham residents advocating on their behalf is tremendous.   I am especially inspired by the stories of how black Duke employees watched over the “first five” undergraduates who entered Duke in 1963.  Two of the five, Nathaniel “Buddy” White Jr. and the late Mary Mitchell Harris graduated from Hillside High School.  Buddy’s father, Nat White Sr., was active in the civil rights protest in Durham.  Buddy described that even though he was from Durham, coming to Duke was like going to another world. 

According to the Rev. William C. Turner, who came to Duke in 1966, Duke was a real culture shock.  Turner, from Richmond, Va., had no intentions of coming to Duke.  Turner and Dr. Brenda Armstrong (Rocky Mount) are pillars in Durham and at Duke.  Dr. Armstrong, Duke Class of 1970, like Dr. Turner has dedicated her entire life to building what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “beloved community”.  Speaking of beloved community, Joyce Johnson (Duke ’68), director of the Jubilee Institute of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro was actively engaged in the affairs of the Durham community through civil rights initiatives, tutoring, and involvement in local churches

White, Turner, Johnson, Armstrong and Superior Court Judge Elaine Bushfan will be on stage at the Durham Performing Arts Center Saturday as a part of the Finale Weekend of events commemorating Duke’s celebration of integration.  Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal will moderate the panel.  Mayor Bill Bell and Duke President Richard H. Brodhead will bring greetings along with Congressman G.K. Butterfield.  The event will include inspirational music, film footage and exhibits relating to Durham civil rights and Duke’s integration.  There will be representatives of current initiatives and programs addressing community health and wellness.

I attempted to “retire” from Duke when I stepped down as director of community and campus engage at Duke Chapel in April 2012.  My prayer and vision at the time was to become more fully immersed in building beloved community in Durham and regionally.  So, when I was asked to be program manager for Duke’s commemoration of integration I was initially hesitant. But, as a proud alumnus, I’m simply Forever Duke.

As we officially close our commemoration at morning worship at Duke Chapel on Sunday, I expect to enter more fully in the work of loving my city and the many people who make Durham great.  The program at DPAC Saturday is an answer to my prayer and the prayers of many others who view the occasion as a fitting expression of what Durham residents mean to Duke. 

Though many barriers have been broken and we have much to celebrate and to be proud of, there is a lot of work ahead.  We have to address growing disparities along human differences and identities, build peaceable community, and inspire our youth to dream and achieve big.  What more can we pray for?

The Rev. Keith Daniel is an ordained Baptist minister, Christian Community Development practitioner and educational consultant.