C.B. Claiborne B.S.E. '69

Breaking down barriers
Writer: 
January 31, 2006
C.B. Claiborne B.S.E. '69

The first African-American basketball player at Duke, C.B. Claiborne, grew up in the last capital of the Confederacy. The inscription in front of the old Danville (Virginia) Public Library said so. His neighbors had their ways of reminding him, too.

Every day on his walk to junior high, he would stop at the railroad tracks that separated his part of town from the white part and line his pockets with rocks. The ones he didn't use to fend off the kids who would accost him he would drop back on his way home so that he would have an arsenal for the next day.

"It was an anachronism of a town, all right," he says.

In 1965, when he arrived as a freshman, Duke was better than Danville--"more open, more cosmopolitan," Claiborne says--but it wasn't Berkeley, either. Here, Claiborne clams up a bit, hesitant to name names or talk openly about some of the problems he ran into at school, but over the course of several conversations, hints of difficulty inevitably slip through: Some older players used to harass him during practice; he wasn't notified of an end-of-the-year athletic awards banquet at the notoriously segregated Hope Valley Country Club; an engineering professor told him it was impossible for him to earn an A in his class. And, maybe most telling of all: He spent so much time at nearby North Carolina Central University, a historically black college, that he had his own meal card there.

At Duke, he had to walk around campus with that hulking "pioneer" tag around his neck. He was an active member of the Black Student Alliance ("It was hard not to [be]. There weren't many of us around back then, you know.") and took part in the famous Allen Building sit-in, but he wasn't the outspoken leader others expected someone in his position to be. He is by nature reflective, introverted, an engineer. He wasn't Huey Newton with a jump shot, and that was problematic for some people.

It was a tough line to walk, especially since he was putting up Nick Horvath numbers on the court--4.1 points and 1.9 rebounds per game. His favorite memory from his playing days is of beating UNC in a triple-overtime, 1969 classic. He sunk some biggie free throws to seal it. "Almost everyone else had fouled out by then, so that's why I was in there," he says.

But don't cry for C.B. Claiborne. The man has survived the decaying muck of Dixie and the soft (but sometimes hard) bigotry of mid-Sixties Duke to earn three graduate degrees, help create the adjustable steering wheel for Ford Motor Company, and work as a professor for the last twenty-five-plus years. Now, he's at Texas Southern University, ostensibly as a marketing prof, but he'd like to think there's more to it.

"My idea is that in life we have one thing to teach, whether it's marketing or aikido or whatever, and mine is to help people become more self-aware," he says. "I've spent my whole adult life trying to teach college students about the importance of understanding their place in the world.

"But when I was eighteen--self-awareness? I didn't even know that term existed. Probably could've helped."