Herald-Sun editorial: Exhibit brings painful, stirring history to forefront

Dec. 09, 2012 @ 05:40 PM

One of the disconcerting things about the realities of segregation is that all of it was happening not so very long ago.

For Duke University, desegregation began in 1961 with three African-American students entering graduate school, and in the fall of 1963 with five African-American undergraduate students, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, Mary Mitchell Harris, Cassandra Smith Rush, Gene Kendall and Nathaniel White Jr. Their journey, and that of the university and broader community, is depicted in an exhibit called “The Road to Desegregation at Duke,” at Perkins Library outside the Biddle Rare Book Room.

The university is planning to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Duke in a number of ways, including a reception at the Nasher Museum of Art on Jan. 25, in which the three surviving black members of Duke’s class of 1963 will participate; a presentation on Jan. 20 connected to the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration; and a number of other programs and publications.

Last April, a $1 million scholarship was announced in the names of the first five black undergraduate students, a scholarship that will support diversity in the Duke student body.

This particular exhibit will be on display until March. It shows historic photographs, newspaper articles, and a wealth of other materials that fill up three glass display cases.

“We thought it was essential to indicate that there were many black employees and staff who were on campus earlier, who helped build, design and run the campus,” said university archivist Valerie Gillispie, who curated the exhibit.. “And that there were many white students who pushed for integration before the administration finally followed their lead.”

Change came slowly at the university, and in its effort to place the events of those days in context, Duke has not shied away from the realities of the days of segregation. On its web page dedicated to desegregation, http://spotlight.duke.edu/50years/, it reads: “Duke was among the last major universities to desegregate. On March 8, 1961, the Board of Trustees voted to desegregate the graduate and professional schools and the following year three African-American students matriculated to Duke graduate schools. They found a school with segregated restrooms and an entrance and section at Wallace Wade Stadium designated ‘colored.’ ”

The university is also looking to celebrate the many contributions that black students have made to Duke, and the third part of the exhibit is dedicated to that effort.

Promoting understanding and reflecting on that shared history is an important undertaking not just for Duke, but for all of us in Durham and the wider community.