Black Student Activism and Durham’s Campus Movement

Students of Alabama State College on campus, Montgomery, Alabama, March 10, 1960 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The 1960 sit-in movement that began in Greensboro on February 1 is a familiar story when it comes to Black student activism in North Carolina. While we generally know more about that activism in the early part of the decade, more recent scholarship has helped us better understand the political awakening within Black student organizations while revealing the important role they played in challenging policymaking decisions in higher education through the 1970s. In Point of Reckoning: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University (Duke University Press, 2021), Theodore D. Segal provides a timely and detailed historical account of the Black campus movement at the Durham school between 1963 and 1969. The author is a Duke alum, retired corporate lawyer, and board member at the Center for Documentary Studies. Interestingly, this book represents his return to a senior honors thesis and graduate research he completed under the direction of William H. Chafe (Civilities and Civil Rights, 1980) in the late 1970s. Segal details the five-year buildup to the “point of reckoning,” the well-known February 13, 1969 Allen Building takeover by about fifty Black students from the Afro-American Society (AAS) in lockstep with Black students across the country. In this insightful analysis, the author holds the university accountable (while naming names) for its past and present failures in making the university an equitable place for its black constituents. 

Point of Reckoning is organized chronologically, with each of its nine chapters examining turning points that highlight the university’s missed opportunities in the face of student protest. The book begins with the Jim Crow institution during its transition from Trinity College to Duke University in 1924. The lucrative Duke Endowment helped set the university on a course from being a regional institution to becoming a leading national one. In 1961, the university admitted its first black graduate and professional students. Nevertheless, the buildup to the Allen Building takeover began in the fall of 1963 when Duke underwent other significant changes. The first change came when it desegregated its campus, under threat of losing federal funding, with the enrollment of its first five black undergraduates: Mary Mitchell, Wilhemina Reuben, Cassandra Smith, Nathaniel White, Jr., and Gene Kendall. The second change occurred when Douglas M. Knight began his tenure as the university’s first “liberal” and non-southern president. Segal continuously reminds us that the Allen Building takeover represented a well-planned final response to the university’s endless bureaucratic stonewalling tactics over several years, rather than as a spontaneous act. Duke’s typical response to student concerns was to form committee after committee with little resolve. In fact, there had been ongoing student demonstrations—previous points of reckoning—led by black and white students whereby they demanded that the university change the conditions on campus for its black students and nonacademic workers (seventy percent of whom were Black Durham residents). 

A methodological strength of Point of Reckoning is how Segal grounds the narrative almost entirely in oral history, which helps provide a broad, accessible, and well-balanced perspective. The author is able to give detailed timelines, virtually minute-by-minute, when discussing the most intense campus demonstrations. While he also relies on sources such as university records, student protest collections (Allen Building Takeover and Duke Vigil), newspapers (including the Duke Chronicle), meeting minutes, audiotapes, and autobiographies, the narrative is brought to life through the authoritative voices of historical figures he allows to speak for themselves. The book includes a fifty-five-member roster of “Key Actors and Their Roles,” which represents a cross-section of the university’s constituents. These included Black and white students, administrators, faculty, alumni, trustees, parents, lawyers, union leaders, nonacademic workers, and student reporters. The featured cast all had some major involvement during the unfolding events leading to the university’s “point of reckoning” in February 1969. 

The isolated everyday experience of Black Duke University students became the core issue from the moment they arrived on campus in 1963 because the university failed to make the necessary preparations beforehand. In other words, Duke had been willing to invite Black undergraduate students to campus but was unwilling to adjust the cultural environment that assumed black inferiority as a matter of course, which meant continued white privilege over black rights. The Black students came to Duke from middle class family backgrounds with deep roots in longstanding Black communities where education had always been an important ideal. They were among the best students from their high schools, focused almost entirely on their academic success, and had a clear sense of who they were. The Black student experience at Duke radicalized them more than anything else, as they were not ready-made activists. They faced a hostile campus complete with racial slurs and discriminatory practices when it came to life in dorms, sports activities, dining halls, membership in fraternities and sororities, and unfair grading from white professors. The university had no black professors until 1966 when the political science department hired Dr. Samuel DuBois Cook. Additionally, the traditional white-only festivities that had been so central to the university’s atmosphere continued, including the playing of “Dixie” and Confederate flag -waving at football games.   

The university community’s continued use of segregated off-campus facilities for celebratory occasions became a disturbing issue through which black students collectively organized in solidarity. At the forefront was the use of the segregated all-white Hope Valley Country Club for important social gatherings sponsored by various campus entities, from alumni affairs to student organizations. This also included continued individual memberships at Hope Valley by senior administrators, faculty, and athletic representatives. In particular, President Knight refused to resign his membership from Hope Valley as a matter of personal choice and political calculation, which he also defended by arguing he could only change the whites-only policy by working from within. By the time Knight resigned his country club membership in 1969, he was well into a presidency that had become more fragile with each passing day; he left the university later that year.  

To challenge the university’s hypocrisy, black students held study-ins outside of the president’s office in the Allen Building, pickets at Hope Valley, and other demonstrations to bring attention to continued racism on campus. As the Black enrollment on campus grew to over sixty students in the fall of 1967, which coincided with the emergent Black Power Movement, students became more politically conscious and their everyday grievances came to include broader considerations. A few select Black student leaders included Brenda Armstrong, Charles Hopkins, Bertie Howard, Charles Becton, Brenda Brown, Janice Williams, Clarence Newsome, Michael McBride, William Turner, Jr., Joyce Hobson, and Stef McLeod. A particular issue that came to the forefront focused on the development of a Black studies program. This issue, alongside others, had been discussed within the university’s policymaking bodies at various stages in committees and other bureaucratic channels that all posed as taking proactive measures. Nevertheless, these steps often resulted in maintaining the status quo. The university’s senior leadership, especially Knight, who had abandoned his liberal credentials when confronted with obstinate southern white resistance, believed that compromise in the face of student demands demonstrated weakness and a relinquishing of power. 

Ultimately, there were three major student demonstrations that took place in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in April 1968 that became defining moments and turning points in the history of Duke University. The first was the 450-person march to University House (the president’s residence) on April 5, 1968, which resulted in 250 of the participants staging an overnight sit-in whereby they called on the president to address their immediate demands. The second was the four-day Silent Vigil on the main West Campus quad, which the students carried over from the sit-in at University House. Their demands included collective bargaining rights and a minimum wage increase for its Black nonacademic workers. The white students mostly led the two above-mentioned demonstrations. The third was the Allen Building takeover by Black students in February 1969. According to Segal, “the patience and restraint white protesters had been accorded during the University House occupation and Silent Vigil eight months earlier clearly would not extend to the Black students in the Allen Building” (214). In fact, Segal makes clear that the university handled the Black-led student demonstration with outright aggression, including soliciting the help of the Durham Police Department and National Guard. “Black student protesters,” Segal explains, “enjoyed no such deference. The university’s response to them was dismissive, condescending, and arbitrary” (239). Today, Duke University has one of the top African and African American Studies Departments in the country, one of the hard-fought concessions won by the AAS that stood as a centerpiece of their demands.

This book will be required reading for all of the university’s constituents as a common reference point for continuing to move the university forward according to its stated values. 

The Black students and their relationships with nonacademic workers from Black Durham, as well as the broader historical context of the Black freedom movement in the Bull City, could have made a stronger appearance. The story of the nonacademic workers gets cut off abruptly without a stronger follow-up, as it reflected students turning their attention to other causes. In a powerful epilogue, however, Segal provides a sobering assessment of the contemporary racial dynamics at Duke University—outlining incidents of hate—that reveals a still long road ahead. Point of Reckoning joins the work of other historians writing about the Black campus movement in other parts of the country.

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Brandon K. Winford

Brandon K. Winford is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is author of John Hervey Wheeler, Black Banking, and the Economic Struggle for Civil Rights (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2020), which won the 2020 Lillian Smith Book Award. Dr. Wheeler is currently at work on a history of African American banking in the New South.

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