As Duke’s new president, Vincent Price, unpacked his suitcases last summer, protests of Confederate monuments swept Durham and the nation. Downtown, protesters toppled the Confederate statue in front of the county building. Others defaced the Robert E. Lee statue at Duke Chapel, and workmen later removed it in the dead of night.
Current debates about memorialization focus on a polarized choice: Tear down statues or leave them untouched. Both options are easy, quick, and deny us the chance to engage with the complexity of our history.
We need to talk about the past, as well as new memorials we want to see.
Removing or retaining monuments does very little to change the reality that certain groups are disproportionately memorialized on this campus, leaving others grossly underrepresented. As part of a year-long Bass Connections project, our team found that in over 327 sites on Duke’s campus (including plaques, statues, and buildings), over half celebrate white men while only 25 individual memorials celebrate people of color; 111 sites are dedicated to donors, while eight are dedicated to staff.
While history strives for precision, the work of memorialization is to convey values reflected by specific historical moments and figures. Duke University’s current memorials make clear what and, more importantly, who it values. Our increasingly diverse faculty, student and staff communities have different values, and we want our campus to reflect those, too.
Let’s erect statues of the first five African-American undergraduates to attend a Duke and place them on Edens Quad in relation to buildings named for President Arthur H. Edens, who opposed student petitions to integrate. Let’s highlight the crucial work of staff members who keep our campus functioning through a monument to Oliver Harvey, a leader of Duke’s first labor union. Among the library’s donor-named rooms, let’s name one for Lillian Griggs, the first professionally trained public librarian in the state, who helped establish the Durham Colored Library in 1916.
In order for this campus to reflect its values of equity and integrity, to become a welcoming environment for future generations of students, we believe that Duke must democratize the memorialization process to allow for and encourage input from all. Furthermore, Duke should initiate an intentional, wide-ranging inquiry into its past and seek to identify other forbears – among them people of color, staff, and activists – who represent our values and should be uplifted with sites of prominence. Duke should also develop a revised naming policy, based on criteria such as, “Is the principal legacy of the namesake in support of the educational mission of the university?”
We make these recommendations, along with others, in our report titled, “Activating History for Justice at Duke,” which we released earlier this week. You can find it on the web at www.activatinghistoryatduke.com. In publishing this report, we hope to empower others to tell and retell the stories that have been forgotten by the institution – ones that not only represent who we are, but also who we want to become. As our university community evolves, so too must the physical space we live in.