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POINT OF RECKONING by Theodore D. Segal


The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University

by Theodore D. Segal

Pub Date: Feb. 5th, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-4780-1142-2
Publisher: Duke Univ.

In-depth examination of the first years of integrated education at a prominent Southern university.

Trinity College, in Durham, North Carolina, became Duke University in 1924 following a huge endowment from a tobacco tycoon. For the next four decades, writes local attorney and Duke graduate Segal, the university was a reliable bastion of Jim Crow law. As late as 1957, a Black pastor asked to complete coursework begun in New York for a master’s degree in theology and was firmly declined by Duke’s president, who wrote, “No doubt you are familiar with the traditional admissions policy at Duke University. [Since] there has been no change in this policy…I am unable to give you a favorable reply.” In 1963, the school admitted Black students—not many, and not enthusiastically—meanwhile continuing a policy of hiring Black blue-collar workers at wages far below the federally established minimum. Thanks to a forward-looking president, Duke eventually “eliminated most of the school’s de jure discriminatory policies and practices” even if the school’s most formal social events were held at a Whites-only country club off campus. Following the death of Martin Luther King, writes Segal, Black students at Duke, as everywhere, were radicalized and became more militant; in 1969, they occupied a campus building only to be brutalized by campus police. Earlier, the majority of Duke’s Black enrollees had written, “We, as a group of Negro students, are fairly convinced…that our sole purpose here at the University is confined to being conspicuous.” Their point was well taken, and even if “on matters of racial progress, Duke was at best reactive and at worst highly resistant,” racial progress did eventually follow. Segal closes his doggedly researched narrative with a list of the accomplishments of some of the occupiers of 1969, including “Brenda Armstrong, the second Black woman in the United States to become a board-certified pediatric cardiologist.”

A candid view of institutional resistance to social justice and its dismantling by determined activism.