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THOUGHTS ON THE OCCASION OF THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF BLACK UNDERGRADUATES AT DUKE

by Frank E. Emory, Jr., T’79  P’15

I enrolled at Duke as a freshman in the Fall of 1975. Although Duke was already an elite university, President Terry Sanford was pushing to realize his even greater “outrageous ambitions” for the place. Decades later I am an alumnus, trustee and parent.

When I arrived, there were few students of color. The student body came in two predominant configurations: black and white. While I do not recall race relations as a particular issue, some aspects of those early years are still fresh in my memory. Then, black students were paired as roommates. And if you were male and black, you needed to have your Duke ID handy on campus and in Durham. The likelihood of getting stopped and questioned by campus and Durham police was high.

Reggie Howard was a contemporary. He was the first black student elected president of the student government (then called the Associated Students of Duke University, ASDU). Reggie was killed in an automobile accident before he could serve. I was elected in the Fall of my junior year and served as the first black ASDU president. Our group of AB Duke Scholars who studied at Oxford in 1977 comprised black and white students. That was a life changing experience.

Black faculty and administrators were few. By far the  predominance of black adults were those who worked in service positions. Indeed, many of those folks served as surrogate parents, chaperones and guides.

Fast-forward to today. The presence and leadership of students of color is completely unremarkable. Key leaders on campus and in the administration are people of color. The main quad at lunchtime is an amalgam of people, all completely at home at “their” Duke.

Today’s undergraduates are highly motivated and accomplished. They seem determined to take advantage of all that Duke has to offer and to create and nurture as many friendships as possible.

Two of the 1963 pioneers that I know personally are Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke and Nat White. When I joined the Board of Trustees, Wilhelmina was already there. I mention them simply to make this point. The Duke University Wilhelmina and Nat encountered in 1963 was a place that attracted highly accomplished, focused, self-possessed people. Wilhelmina and Nat were exemplars in 1963, and still are. So, while we celebrate--appropriately--this milestone of transformative change, it is equally important to acknowledge that in some ways Duke University remains just the same. Duke continues to be a place for people who are congenitally inquisitive, who feel unbound in their life horizons, and who are willing to work hard.

Thanks very much to those five brave freshmen. The record they set for courage and accomplishment has yet to be broken. Thanks also to the leaders who broke the southern mold and committed to make Duke a more open place.

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