Black Student Takeover Polarizing, But Transformative

Despite its serene location in the woods of North Carolina, Duke University did not evade the turbulence of the 1960s. Well behind the times and in the face of intense social pressure, the University began to admit Black students in 1963 [1]. As with any such transition, there were lingering animosities on both sides, and even for those committed to cooperation, five years proved insufficient to ameliorate more than a century of segregation. This conflict reached a flashpoint in February of 1969. Citing insufficient integration measures, Black students began to occupy the Allen Building (Duke’s main administrative building) on February 13, in protest.

Students Protesting Outside the Allen Building [16]

Students Protesting Outside the Allen Building [16]

The protest is best viewed as an attempt to correct gross inequities in opportunities for Whites and Blacks (academically, socially, and professionally) on campus. The occupation was proximately motivated by “Black Week” on campus. In a broader sense, the protest afforded students of all races an opportunity to voice their grievances with the administration, which is why participation was so diverse. This episode in the fight for equality was particularly notable because it represented a break from system of civil negotiation that Black students had previously been using. The occupation was extremely polarizing on campus because it highlighted many points of disagreement about the university and its power structure that had long been swept under the rug. It magnified larger issues regarding the number of black faculty and administration members, living conditions, programs of study, grading methods, and standards for admission to Duke. Short-term, the occupation made it impossible for the administration to pretend that they had resolved the racial issues on campus. Long-term, the Duke community substantially improved (though did not solve) most of the issues in question.

The combination of structural forces (long-term) and the energy and organization that Black Week provided (short-term) were sufficient to yield a mass sit-in among students, Black and White. Blacks had long taken concern with inequities on campus; the University employed too few blacks, there was not a dorm where students felt safe, there was no African-American studies department, and too many students of color were failing out. Administrators themselves noted that they had been meeting with the Black students about a potential solution to these issues, but during November the students recognized that they did not have the time to attend any longer [3]. Black Week was specifically cited as a reinvigorating force. Information about the problems on campus was distributed in Harambee, a Black student periodical. The newspaper featured multiple pieces focused on Black power and rising up to fight racist systems. The final page presented a list of ten demands to Duke from the Black community, which ended up serving as the key points of struggle for the occupiers a week later.

Police Officers with Gas [18]

Police Officers with Gas [18]

Under harassment all day, the students emptied the building on the evening of February 13th, but continued to jeer at police officers, who had gassed the empty building. After about 15 minutes of being shouted at, the police began to fire tear gas canisters into the crowd. When protesters began throwing them back, a full-scale riot broke out [6]. This violence against protesters that were no longer trespassing was a major turning point in the conflict. It served as a key rallying point that transformed the occupiers in the minds of the general student body from crazy radicals into victims of a White system of authority.

A major point of disagreement surrounding the occupation was the tactics the students themselves used. At about 5:15 the evening of February 13, a memo by Provost Marcus Hobbs was written and distributed to protesters [4]. It bluntly stated that occupiers who did not promptly leave the building would be arrested for trespassing. The opinions of faculty and administration members were somewhat split here. There seemed to be a general appreciation of the protesters’ lack of direct violence, but major contention about how to respond considering the otherwise aggressive posture, illegal tactics, and rhetoric they had assumed. Professor Henry Clark, in particular, worried that the administration might allow protesters to “get their heads ‘bashed in’’ by police [3]. Multiple faculty members seemed stunned when it was announced that the administration had given a one-hour ultimatum to the protesters. Professor Cartwright, in particular, complained that the leadership had not been effective in the communication of its tactics for dealing with the protests. With the endorsement of other faculty members, Clark encouraged the administration to use every possible method short of force to disperse the protest. However, there was agreement that negotiation on the substance of the protesters’ points should not occur while they were still in the building.

The University was caught flat on its feet. A council was assembled that night to begin preparing a response to the demands [5]. Some leeway should be given to a group operating in this short a timeframe, but the response is lackluster. Its meeting transcript discusses in very vague terms improvements that could be made, such as pursuing “all possible channels through which it might gain Black professors” and “tutoring of Black students of the University by members of the Divinity school.” Whether their efforts were enthusiastic or not, the response seemed to offer lip service to fighting racism, while failing to provide specifics on how to resolve the structural issues that troubled the campus.

How would you have acted on campus in 1969?

How would you have acted on campus in 1969? [19]

A major racial misunderstanding between the Blacks and the administration impeded progress. Although most administrators, save those involved in the ugly teargas incident, appeared to be decent people who felt they were putting forth an honest effort, a passage from a flyer entitled “Why are Blacks Leaving Duke?” sums up the problem fairly well: “Duke has not in fact been any slower or worse than most of the rest of the country or its leaders. But the standards of white society can no longer excuse white indifference to the problem.” It continues: “If Duke and white America have failed the blacks it is because neither really wanted to succeed” [9]. This was the core disconnect. Those in power failed to comprehend that the absence of Bull Connor-style belligerently violent racism was not enough for the Black students at Duke. For the Blacks, the demands were not a matter of convenience; they were a matter of necessity. In this sense, the University badly miscalculated the negotiating position of the Blacks. This gap caused major communication issues and likely created a process that was much more disruptive than it needed to be.

In the end, the actions of the administration were widely condemned. Even Young Americans for Freedom (a Conservative student group associated with Barry Goldwater) noted that the police had gone too far, and President Knight was largely blamed for allowing them to do that. Considering how little progress had been made on the substance of the Black grievances and how violently they were treated when they spoke out, a sizable chunk of the student body was sympathetic toward Black walkout efforts and supported their causes.

Within the power structure of the University, President Knight agreed to decrease his personal power. In the face of backlash to his unilateralism during the crisis, President Knight appointed Dr. Barnes Woodhall as Chancellor pro-temp, a position designed to dilute Knight’s decision-making ability [12]. The Chancellor was granted almost exclusive authority over the internal affairs of the University, including issues such as student unrest, a major rebuke to Knight that may not have been as voluntary as his letter suggested. A few weeks later, Knight resigned.

The initial response of some moderate and conservative students is recorded, as well. One document of theirs, written by Young Americans for Freedom, seems to express disdain toward both the protesters and the administration [7]. Entitled “A Scenario for Campus Revolt”, the flyer promotes a meeting to take place the night of the occupation by describing a potentially damaging scenario in which a group of students brings up a controversial topic like racism, takes evasive action (occupying the Allen Building), the administration overreacts, and everyone is left with “militants” running the campus. Another argues that although the police went too far, the takeover was not justifiable in any way and the demands from the Blacks were absurd. They even went as far as to say that abiding by them would promote a sort of reverse racism [8].

Given how closely the situation began to resemble the conservatives’ nightmares, a broad swath of community members began to take action.  Groups of Divinity School students began a campaign for a “moratorium” on classes for three days to allow for exclusive focus on the negotiations. White students joined in on the principle of racial equality, and in an attempt to further some of their own issues with the administration, such as the push toward divestment [17].  Faculty continued to disagree on how to proceed, students felt unsafe in their immediate surroundings, and perhaps most frighteningly (or excitingly, for those who had planned the protest), nobody knew what would happen next. Some classes continued, others were cancelled, and a bevy of meetings, symposiums, and informal get-togethers allowed people on all ends of the spectrum to simply figure out where they stood on the issues [10].

Students protesting a variety of issues [17]

Students protesting a variety of issues [17]

The occupation was a defining moment in the history of race relations at Duke. It ushered in an era of heightened racial awareness and understanding and materially improved the way Black Duke students lived their lives, in ways both immediate and permanent. In time, the administration acceded to many of the Blacks demands. Within the first month, they agreed to pursue academic tutors for Blacks, designate a Black residence hall for the following school year, review the records of Black students that had failed out, develop a summer program for struggling Black students to catch up, revisit grading policies to attempt to eliminate racial bias, and create independent study programs that would serve as a de facto African-American studies program until a department could be fully created [10]. The students involved in the occupation were tried under the University’s Pickets and Protest policy, but were eventually acquitted when it became clear that expelling all involved would reduce the number of Black students dramatically enough to jeopardize federal funding [13]. Some left on their own, however. A new school, Malcolm X Liberation University, was founded in Durham on the principle of celebrating African heritage and with the goal of promoting Black Power. Many Duke students enrolled [15].

Organizing Black Studies

Organizing Black Studies[20]

It should be added, however, that the concessions the University eventually granted were not a panacea, much in the same way allowing Black students in did not end segregation on campus. An article in the Chronicle from thirty years later suggests that while achievements such as the construction of the Mary Lou (the Black cultural center on campus) and Black protesters no longer needing to worry about being hit with tear gas as they protest, it is important to note that they are still doing just that: protesting [12]. Many felt then and today that there were and are not enough Black faculty members and that the campus exudes a sense of white privilege, with one student saying that professors treated Blacks as if “they didn’t really belong” [14]. Times have changed even since those pieces were written, but their theses are largely still relevant. Racism takes a pernicious form today at Duke, perhaps most evident in the underrepresentation of Black students in the engineering majors.

While difficult, the Allen Building takeover was one of the most productive events to ever occur on Duke’s campus. Very few people would contend that race relations on campus are perfect, but undeniable progress has been made since the days of disproportionately high Black dropout rates and one Black faculty member. The occupation was the breaking point, past which the Duke community could no longer continue to pretend that the admittance of Black students and nominal desegregation were sufficient efforts in the area of race. Previous administration efforts to ameliorate academic, social, and professional issues facing Blacks on campus were exposed as clearly insufficient. The bold tactics of the protesters, while highly divisive, elicited responses from fellow students and the executive council, and to this extent, they achieved their goal.

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