A scholar’s death, impending “Silent Vigil” anniversary, stir memories

Samuel DuBois Cook receives Duke’s University Medal from then-president Nannerl O. Keohane in 1993.
Samuel DuBois Cook receives Duke’s University Medal from then-president Nannerl O. Keohane in 1993. Duke Photography

In 1966, the year I began my student career at Duke University, a young political scientist joined the faculty.

More than a century after the Civil War eradicated slavery, more than four decades after James B. Duke’s philanthropy birthed Duke from Trinity College, two years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Samuel DuBois Cook became the first African-American to hold a regular-rank, tenured position on the university’s faculty.

Dr. Cook died Tuesday, May 30, at age 88. His death, an impending observance next spring of the 50th anniversary of a landmark protest movement on campus and author John T. Edge’s talk at Fullsteam this past week all converged to stir memories of a tumultuous period. Impending retirement may be making me especially nostalgic, I confess.

As his obituary in Duke Today, the university’s on-line daily newsletter noted, “Cook was on the Duke faculty at a challenging time on campus and in the country.”

The reunion observance next April will be of the “Silent Vigil,” when hundreds of students camped in front of Duke Chapel, pressing demands on the university in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, days before. Dr. Cook, two years into his Duke career, was among the faculty members who actively encouraged and supported the protest.

A year later, he would play a prominent role in the faculty response to another campus protest. “In 1969, when students in the Afro-American Society occupied the Allen Building to push for improved conditions for black students and staff, Cook, along with other faculty, played a key role in mediating the situation,” Duke Today wrote.

Just a few weeks before his death, I was reminded of his role – and realized he was in failing health – when reading email traffic discussing the vigil’s upcoming anniversary. Someone urged inviting Cook, but another vigil veteran noted that he was unlikely to able to travel. His memory will, no doubt, be honored at the events of next April.

President Richard Brodhead, himself weeks from retirement, captured Cook’s impact well last week. “A scholar of political science who was intimately involved with the leadership of the civil rights movement, he was the bearer of the vision of the beloved community and, throughout his life, worked for a society based on inclusion, reconciliation, and mutual respect for all,” Brodhead said.

How does a food writer figure into this reminiscence? Edge, founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance, was in town to talk about his latest book, “The Potlikker Papers.” A summary on his website describes it this way:

“Beginning with the pivotal role of cooks in the civil rights movement, noted authority John T. Edge narrates the region’s journey from a hive of racism to a hotbed of American immigration.” And, it noted, “Restaurants were battlegrounds during the civil rights movement.”

Talking to that point Wednesday night, Edge mused about an irony of the lunch-counter sit-ins that spread across North Carolina and elsewhere in the South in the early 1960s, a pivotal development in attracting attention to the civil rights movement and shaming the nation’s conscience. Mid-century dime store and drugstore lunch counters were “democratic places,” he observed, where people of all classes would sit shoulder-to-shoulder. That made it all the more profound when African-Americans demanded their rightful place at those counters.

Dr. Cook’s death, the gray and disappearing hair that will no doubt be in abundance at the vigil anniversary emphasize that that era is receding into history. That makes remembering it all the more important.