Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture

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). 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.

The Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture at Duke University officially opens in September 1983 with the expressed purpose of 1) preserving and enhancing Black culture at Duke University 2) promote a better understanding and harmony among the races  3) provide a meeting facility for those with an interest in Black culture 4) promote the recruitment of Black students to Duke University by providing a magnet area 5) help motivate the student population and general public to increase their knowledge and understanding of Black culture; and 6) assist Black students in maintaining their self-esteem by promoting cultural pride.

Opening Ceremonies for the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture occurred September 23-25, 1983.  The Center opens in West Union 02.  The founding director was Ed Hill.  The keynote speaker was Toni Morrison.  In 2003, Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture was relocated to West Union 201, the former Oak Room.  Leon Dunkley was director.  Mary Lou Williams’ Music for Peace (or Mary Lou’s Mass) was performed September 21, 2003 in Duke Chapel.  Official opening ceremonies occurred March 2004.  The keynote speaker was Dr. John Hope Franklin.  The Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture moved to the Flowers Building under the directorship of Chandra Guinn in 2013. The University commemorated the 50thAnniversary of the first Black undergraduates to enrolled at Duke and was the center focus of the Center and campus thus there were not special opening ceremonies. The year, 2019 the University commemorated the 50th Anniversary of the Allen Building Takeover with original protesters recognized on campus and a special exhibit in the Perkins Library entitled “Black Students Matter” Taking Over Allen in ’69.  The Mary Lou Williams Center was the venue for a special Sunday service for the original protesters.  The keynote speaker was Rev. Dr. William C. Turner, T’69 and special remarks were given by Howard Fuller.   As a part of this commemoration, the MLWC facilitated a conversation for the campus community on the February 13, 2019 to consider how student activism/students' demands called for and became the catalyst for institutional change.  Participants reflected on the conditions that gave rise to the Allen Building Takeover on February 13, 1969, the 14 years that followed until the opening of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture in September 1983 and the additional student activism before and since that allow for 'The Mary Lou' to be a beacon of Black culture and keeper of Black history at Duke University.