Students of Duke University’s first integrated class (L-R): Gene Kendall, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, and Nathaniel “Nat” White Jr.

Duke to Commemorate 50 Years of Black Student Integration

Students of Duke University’s first integrated class (L-R): Gene Kendall, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, and Nathaniel “Nat” White Jr.

Beginning in January 2013, Duke University will launch a nine-month, university-wide commemoration to highlight the 50th anniversary of the school’s integration.

A series of events will highlight the five African American undergraduates who broke the color barrier in 1963, as well as the impact of other pioneering black faculty, staff, and graduate students who have since helped make the university more inclusive.

“Celebrating the Past, Charting the Future: Commemorating 50 Years of Black Students at Duke University” will officially begin with a reception at the Nasher Museum of Art on January 25. The three surviving black members of Duke’s first integrated class – Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, Gene Kendall, and Nathaniel “Nat” White Jr. – will join President Richard H. Brodhead and current student leaders at the event.

“This university has had a commitment to making Duke a place of access, opportunity and mutual respect for all,” Brodhead said in his annual address to the faculty earlier this year. “In 50 years of struggling toward this goal, this university has made significant progress, which we should remember with pride. Where there’s work still to do, we should acknowledge it frankly and keep at our task.”

Over the course of nine months, faculty, students, and alumni will organize events aimed not only at celebrating a half-century of diversity and inclusiveness on campus, but also focused on the future. Departments and units from across campus are being encouraged to showcase Duke’s intellectual rigor, service-oriented history in Durham and beyond, and forms of black artistic expression.

“It strikes me that the diversity we now view as normal in the undergraduate student body reflects positively on the emergence of blacks at Duke,” said White, a Durham native who attended Hillside High School and is past president of the Hayti Development Corporation.

“I think we have the opportunity in the year ahead to critically examine how blacks have integrated. We want to ensure Duke continues to be a place where students of diverse backgrounds can engage in an arena of mutual respect to tackle the great challenges of an increasingly diverse world. Black faculty, staff, and students should be an integral part of that process,” White said.

Keith Daniel, who previously served as director of community and campus engagement for Duke Chapel, has been appointed staff director for the commemoration. Daniel, a former student athlete who earned bachelor of arts and master’s of divinity degrees from Duke, will work with schools, departments, alumni, and community leaders on programs and publications for the 50th anniversary.

“I am truly honored to have been given the gift of shared responsibility and stewardship of such a tremendous milestone in the history of Durham and Duke. I know first-hand how important the Durham community was in the success of black students,” said Daniel, whose parents are from Durham. “We hope that the commemoration will set a firm course for a profound future of increasing inclusion and expanding contribution of scholarship and service.”

Highlights of the commemoration include a Durham-Duke event focused on civil rights, an academic symposium led by faculty from the African and African American Studies Department, a two-day music festival, regional events for Duke alumni in cities across the United States, and a closing ceremony during Founders’ Day weekend in the fall 2013.

“We plan to commemorate the ways in which black students have enriched our environment but, more importantly, this is a time to focus our attention on the decades ahead,” said Benjamin Reese, the vice president of the Office of Institutional Equity. “It is not only a tribute to those first five students and the legions of black students who followed but, looking ahead, an opportunity to create an intellectual environment truly characterized by our values of diversity, equity, and respect.”

Last April, Jack O. Bovender Jr., T’67, MHA ’69, a member of Duke’s Board of Trustees, and his wife Barbara funded a million-dollar scholarship named in honor of the first five black students, who were his classmates. This scholarship will support Duke’s commitment to the benefits of diversity.

In addition to Reuben-Cooke, Kendall, and White, the other students to first integrate Duke were Mary Mitchell Harris and Cassandra (Smith) Rush.

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