Equal but Separate — College Days

This article is the final installment of memoirs chronicling my educational experiences as a Black student during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. I attended Virginia’s segregated elementary and high schools. My last two years of high school were at Culver Military Academy (Culver Academies), an integrated preparatory school in Culver, Indiana. When I enrolled in 1970, Duke University was seven years into integration and still struggling with its racist history. This installment is my first-hand account of being a Black student at Duke during the early 1970s.

Friends and associates have asked why I decided to attend Duke. The answer is simple. Duke was (is) arguably the best university in the southeast. It is perennially ranked as one of the top ten national universities in the country by Forbes and U.S. News and World Report. Many aspire to attend Duke; I was one of the chosen. To not attend may have been viewed as one turning down a Duke basketball scholarship by today’s standards. It would have blocked a blessing and given me a lifetime of “I wonder what would have happened if…”

As a young Black man, I wanted to do whatever I could to set myself apart from others. Being Black and poor were already two strikes, and I figured the Duke brand might help mitigate the other strikes.

The Richmond News Leader, a local newspaper, published an article about my acceptance into Duke. It was rare for a Black kid or white kid, for that matter, from eastern Henrico, Virginia, to attend Duke in the early seventies. My mother and other ladies in my neighborhood were domestic workers in Sandston, Virginia; Highland Springs, Virginia, and other nearby areas. My going to Duke was a source of pride for them and the whole community.

During the summer of 1970, my parents, driving an old green Plymouth station-wagon, dropped me off at the circle in front of Duke Chapel to participate in a freshman transition program. The transition program acclimated students of color to a predominantly white environment — not new to me because of my Culver Academies days.

There were about fifteen of us in the program, including a couple of white kids. Most of us were poor kids from the Mid-Atlantic who were first-generation college students — neither of my parents completed elementary school.

Duke Chapel and the neo-Gothic West Campus were awe-inspiring and remain so today. It says, “old money.”

I do not recall a lot about the transition program. I remember it being a fun and exciting time — not exactly a precursor to what would happen in the fall. Participating in various sports activities, other social events, and a trip to Buckroe Beach (by then integrated) in Hampton, Virginia, were highlights. I recall studying what the equivalent to first-year English composition.

I also recall a little red-headed girl (she was Black for those wondering) from Baltimore whom I became enchanted with that summer, so much so that I broke it off with my then-girlfriend from home. My enchantment with the redhead was short-lived as she kicked-me-to-the-curb for an upperclassman later that year. She was a city girl from Baltimore, and I was as green as they come. What did I know about anything?

The 1960s were a time when colleges and universities were first starting to integrate under federal mandates. Like other historically white colleges and universities, Duke was slow to integrate, admitting its first Black undergraduates in 1963. Records indicate Duke still had segregated restrooms at that time, and Wallace Wade Stadium (football stadium) had a section reserved for colored.

On February 13, 1969, Black students dissatisfied with the racial environment on campus, and the retention rate (only fifty percent for Black students in the classes of 1966–68) occupied the administration building (known as the Allen Building Takeover). Establishing an Afro-American studies department, setting up a Black dormitory, protection from police harassment, increased enrollment, financial support for Black students, and total amnesty for Black students involved in the takeover were among the grievances listed.

An alumni white-lash occurred. Duke’s president, Douglas Knight, received a letter saying, “Black students were not qualified to be there in the first place.” Another letter chastised him for inaction and permitting “a handful of burr-heads to disrupt the procedures of a large institution like Duke University.” President Knight resigned shortly after the takeover.

The racist sentiments of the alumni pained and saddened me. The alumni did not understand that the Black students were not the traditional privileged students. They did not appreciate the work ethic, grit, and determination embedded in the Black students, traits not measured in standardized tests.

I sensed tension between the administration and the Black students who were there when I arrived. This tension may have resulted from a lingering disappointment and bitterness felt by the Black students on probation (they demanded amnesty) for participating in the takeover.

Much of the overt racism faced by Black students before me had subsided. Most white students were friendly and indifferent towards us, taking the let bygones be bygones approach to racial issues. However, I recall being taunted with the “n-word” on several occasions while walking on the quad at night.

I don’t recall a convocation speech like Dean Christopher Guttentag’s 2020 address before the faculty and freshmen class when he said, “You belong here. We chose you not for what you have done but for what you can do when given the opportunity.”

Oh, how I could have used such a speech!

It would have made me feel that I belonged and was no different from any other freshman stopping at a new station in their lives. Instead, I felt isolated and unsupported, in a foreign place, like an invisible stepchild, not wanted but tolerated to meet federal and other funding mandates.

To me, Duke was effectively saying, “You got what you wanted, now survive or leave.”

Black pride and solidarity were on steroids during my days at Duke. Supersized afros, bell-bottomed pants, and platform shoes were the dress of the day. James Brown sang, “I’m Black, and I’m Proud.” Gil Scott Heron rapped, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Marvin Gay sang, “What’s Going On.” Reverend Jesse Jackson appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. Blaxploitation films: Shaft, Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Superfly were must-see movies. “What’s Happening Brother?” was the standard greeting between Black men.

The combination of feeling unwelcomed, Black pride/solidarity, and a critical mass of Black students resulted in self-segregation. Most Black students chose to live, study, and socialize apart from white students.

We were attending the “Harvard of South” with equal access to the nationally acclaimed teachers and best facilities. Yet, we chose to separate ourselves from the majority student body, favoring Black unity and identity and rejecting acculturation. We sought the comfort of familiarity, commonality, and camaraderie in an unwelcoming environment. We needed that support base and to be around people who looked and felt like us, partied (we did not know anything about keg parties), and worshiped as we did.

Except for being in classes together, there was no mixing of the races.

Secrecy ruled when it came to interracial dating.

There was a set table in the dining hall where Black students would gather and catch-up during lunch and dinner hours. We gathered at a tree on the quad during breaks between classes. I recall a Russian delegation visiting the campus while we assembled under the tree and asking if we were participating in a protest.

We had Black intramural flag football and basketball teams.

While most Black female students lived in integrated dorms on the East Campus, most Black male students lived in the same dorm or off-campus.

We sat together at football and basketball games. I do not recall the playing of Dixie or the flying of the confederate flags during the games. However, we did not stand during the national anthem’s playing, a form of John Lewis’ “good trouble.”

We struggled with a tug-of-war between our childhood indoctrination to love America and our experiences as adults where we realized America only loved us when there was something to be gained.

From elementary through high school, we had been taught to be patriotic, salute the flag, pledge allegiance to the flag, stand to attention with the right hand over heart during the national anthem’s playing, etc. As Black college students and Jim Crow survivors, we did not know about Former President Obama’s new patriotism. Instead, we were reminding those who had cast a blind eye to the Black experience that the American promise of racial equality and social justice was in its infancy.

For our actions, we were called unpatriotic and ungrateful.

As I write, I am encouraged by Duke’s recent commitment to addressing systemic racism on its campus. That commitment and the stark disparity in the security preparation for and response to the January 6, 2021 Insurrection and the Black Lives Matter protests affirmed that systemic racism is as much an issue today as it was 50 years ago.

Duke’s academic rigors were not new to me because of the study habits acquired and classes taken while at Culver Academies. The first year of the calculus was a repeat of what I had taken at Culver — which I took to ease my transition to Duke.

I did not feel any sense of racial bias in the classroom expressed by others. Graduating with a degree in economics, my classes were mostly economics, mathematics, or business. Tests were typically multiple-choice and objective. You either knew the subject matter, or you did not.

One disappointment was I did not have an academic advisor or counselor during my time at Duke.

College days are the best in a person’s life is a myth. I did not go to college to have fun and party. There was no trust fund for me or a job at my parents’ business. College was the vehicle to escape my meager socioeconomic beginning.

Like most other Black students, I attended Duke on a combination of grants, loans, and work-study. I worked in the men’s gym laundry room after classes. During most summers, I worked as a painter. The summer before my senior year, I pulled twelve-hour shifts carting cigarettes and loading pallets at a Philip Morris plant.

There are aspects of my Duke experience that I look back at with fondness. The bonds created by the self-segregation created lifetime friendships. I also had a college sweetheart (not the redhead but a young lady from Texas), a friendship and support source. A relationship beyond college was not in the cards for us. After Duke, she became a successful Dallas pediatrician, and I returned to Virginia to have a successful government career.

My journaling of life as a Black student at Duke 50 years ago has been enlightening. While I am aware of the 1993 60 Minutes story (title same as mine) by broadcast journalist Leslie Stahl on racial segregation at Duke, I naively thought that “self-segregating” was a 1970s phenomenon limited to Black students. An Internet search of the term “self-segregation” reveals that the practice is as much alive today at Duke and other elite campuses as it was 50 years ago and includes different ethnic groups.

My journaling provides lessons for current and future Black students.

  • I was laser-focused on the degree. In retrospect, combining a Duke degree with the social capital garnered from the relationships developed and nurtured (with fellow students, professors, administrators) enhances its value.
  • My socioeconomic upbringing and naivete framed my Duke experience. Current students should be strategic, take responsibility for their Duke experience, and not see themselves as guests but owners. Strategies include but are not limited to: requesting an academic advisor and mentor if they are not assigned; seeking out and joining diverse study groups for challenging courses; participating in various student groups and organizations; and, getting to know critical administrators (good for references), etc.
  • Other Black students were my social circle, and I had no white friends. While some self-segregation is human nature, one of the benefits of schools like Duke is full exposure to and the opportunity to develop life strategies and skills that facilitate navigating between different races and cultures while at Duke and afterward in careers and a multicultural society. To not take advantage of this exposure is a missed opportunity.

Chronicling my life as a Duke student has been liberating. I have been conflicted about my Duke experience for most of my life — loved it and hated it. In retrospect, Duke has been integral to my life and how I am perceived. And, the rewards (career advances, lifetime friendships, and achievement) from graduating from Duke have far exceeded any travails I may have experienced.

As I look back at my Duke experience and other life experiences, I can now say, “Not bad for a poor boy from the backroads of Sandston, Virginia.”

Duke was the right choice for me.

While I do not claim to be “True Blue.”

I am Forever Duke!

Retiree, cancer survivor, biker, former widower, husband, father, grandfather, brother, and writer. Life lessons are shared through stories and reflections.