What are the most significant years in Duke history? By my count, there are three. The first is 1892, when Trinity College moved from Randolph County to Durham, leaving its rural birthplace to seek a new urban setting and a new connection to the world.
The second is 1924, when James B. Duke’s gift transformed a fine liberal-arts college into a comprehensive university.
Only one other year was comparably transformational in putting Duke on its upward course. This was 1963, when the first five African-American undergraduates were admitted to Duke. With this change, Duke committed itself to equal opportunity, access based on talent and promise, and diversity as an agent of education—values that sustain our current strength.
This milestone is the focus of Celebrating the Past, Charting the Future: Commemorating 50 Years of Black Students at Duke. Over the next nine months, a rich program of events will celebrate the contributions of Duke’s black students, faculty and staff members, and alumni, starting with these pioneers. No current student has a memory of 1963, and many here find it nearly impossible to imagine that Duke was not always the vibrantly diverse community it is today. This commemoration challenges us to recover a crucial chapter of our history and to reflect how that event transformed not only Duke’s campus, but also the very philosophy and practice of a Duke education.
Throughout its history, Duke has had a complex relationship to race. The Duke family, highly progressive for its time, gave financial support to many key black institutions in Durham, including the North Carolina College for Negroes, today’s North Carolina Central University. But in its early decades, Duke University had no black students or faculty—not by accident, and not by written policy, but by conformity with the practices of the segregated South. In the 1940s, the brilliant African- American historian John Hope Franklin lived in Durham and did research for his classic From Slavery to Freedomin Duke’s Perkins Library. Although he was free to study here, it was unthinkable that he could be on the faculty here, or at any all-white college in the region. It was not until 1961 that Duke’s board of trustees voted—even then, not unanimously—to admit black students to the graduate and professional schools.
What a change from then to now. Today, the vision of diversity that began with a focus on ending discrimination against African Americans has broadened, and Duke welcomes students from all races, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and national origins. Every part of this university has been strengthened by people of every background. Duke’s global and multicultural character is now as much a part of our identity as our gothic architecture.
As it has changed our demographics, diversity also has proven its critical educational value. A seminar works best when students and faculty start from different places, express different perspectives, and introduce each other to different ways of thinking. This mutual enlightenment takes place in classes, but also through the interactions students share at a laboratory bench, over a meal, and in the dance studio. In these countless everyday exchanges, individuals with divergent outlooks challenge each other to rethink unquestioned assumptions. This is twenty-first-century education at its best: a vital preparation for our interconnected world.
"Duke’s global and multicultural character is now as much a part of our identity as our gothic architecture."
Our admissions office creates our community anew each year, shaping a class of young women and men who have the potential to contribute their intelligence, energy, and life experiences to Duke and to the world. This potential is assessed across a wide variety of measures: In addition to academic credentials, we evaluate character, drive, and the ability to overcome obstacles and maximize available opportunities. Believing strongly in this holistic assessment of candidates, Duke has joined a group of peer universities in an amicus brief in the affirmative-action case currently before the Supreme Court. Together, we argue that universities have a compelling educational interest in building a diverse student body—and that consideration of race and ethnicity as factors in admissions is a legitimate and necessary way to achieve this goal. This principle is one of the key values undergirding our intellectual community.
Fifty years ago, Duke made a decision and changed its history forever. That decision set Duke on the path toward becoming the institution it is today, a place where the brightest minds from across the country and around the globe come together to deepen our understanding of the world. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of opening our doors to Duke’s first five black undergraduates, let’s remember how we have been enriched by the progress that began that day.