Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture

About Us

The Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture strives to promote racial understanding, build community, and foster an appreciation for and increase knowledge of Black people, Black history, Black culture, and the vast contributions of people of the African Diaspora. We provide programs and services which contribute to the successful academic and personal development of Black students at Duke University and positively impact the lives of all those whom they encounter. We seek to be a hub for information and activity related to Black students, alumni, and other Black members of the Duke community. We welcome all who seek to engage with and be empowered by a greater understanding of Black experience.

Download our brochure.

History of the Mary Lou Williams Center

The African American presence in the Duke University undergraduate community began in 1963 and, although it would not be realized for two decades, the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture was born of that moment in history and bears its markings. Established in 1983, The Center remains a safe, welcoming and supportive space that reflects the core values, culture, mission and perspectives of Duke’s Black community.

The Center was named to honor the great artist—Mary Lou Williams (b. Atlanta, GA - 8 May 1910; d. Durham, NC - 28 May 1981). The renowned pianist, composer, teacher and humanitarian performed with numerous jazz legends and was among the first jazz artists to perform at Carnegie Hall and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Williams taught at Duke University as an Artist-in-Residence from 1977 until her death. She is remembered by artists such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell as one whose musical and spiritual contributions were singular and profound.

Mary Lou Williams

Pianist and composer, Mary Lou Williams, [née. Scruggs, Mary Elfrieda] (b. Atlanta, 8 may1910; d. Durham, NC, 28 May 1981) grew up in Pittsburgh, PA where she played professionally from a very early age.  Taking her stepfather’s name, she performed as Mary Lou Burley.  In 1925 she joined a group led by John Williams, whom she married.  When in 1929 Andy Kirk took over Terrence Holder’s band, of which John was a member, Mary Lou Williams served the group as deputy pianist and arranger until April 1930, at which time she became a regular member.