Retro: They Lived, and They Learned

In the 1960s, students immersed themselves in a Durham community to try to foster change
April 29, 2014

More than 2,000 students have participated in DukeEngage since it began in 2007. The program, in which students serve a domestic or international community in need, has become a Duke hallmark. So, it might surprise you to know that forty years before DukeEngage launched, Duke had developed an immersive community- service program based in Durham.

Called the Living-Learning Experiment in Edgemont Community, the program was intended “to give Duke students an opportunity to better understand the problems and possibilities of persons who live in socially depressed and culturally deprived urban areas and, in some measure, to help alleviate these conditions.” Edgemont is located near the Golden Belt area of East Durham and, in the mid-1960s, had long been known as Durham’s poorest white neighborhood. In the early 1940s, a committee of the Duke University Church Board recognized the need for a community center and opened one in Edgemont. It found a permanent location in a building on the corner of Elm and Angier in 1945. Outreach to children, teens, and adults in the neighborhood included preschool classes, afterschool care, Christmas parties, and more. Students and staff and faculty members raised funds and volunteered, and the center was funded through the Duke University Church Board and later the Duke University Religious Council.

The Living-Learning Experiment began in the fall of 1966, when students, both men and women, applied to live in two houses rented for them on Angier Avenue. One house was for men and one for women, along with a married couple who oversaw the program. Female students needed their parents’ permission to participate. The program was seen as benefiting both the community and the students with its purpose “to provide recreational, educational, and character-building services to the children and families in the Edgemont area; and to provide opportunities for Duke University students to develop program knowledge and leadership skills.”

Eight students—four men and four women—were part of the inaugural class. They lived in the Edgemont neighborhood but attended classes at Duke. They were expected to spend significant time engaging with the community in some way, but the parameters were undefined. A year-end report submitted by the leaders of the program, Sam and Bonnie Vick Stone, noted that with so little structure, there was varying success in how well individual students engaged in the community. Those who committed to the program volunteered extensively at the community center, and others invited neighbors to come over to their homes and spend time socializing.

The students found socializing with the children and teenagers in the community easier than connecting with the adults, who were more reticent. The neighborhood, which had long struggled with poverty, also was facing a demographic shift. Urban renewal eliminated many housing options in the nearby Hayti neighborhood for African-American residents. These displaced residents were often not welcomed into other segregated neighborhoods, but found some options in Edgemont. The community went from more than 90 percent white in the early 1960s to 60 percent black by 1968. The white Duke students were seen as outsiders to many of the adults in the neighborhood, black and white.

The program ran for three subsequent years with some modifications in its approach. In the final year, students took a course with professors Donald Roy of sociology and Richard B. Kramer of psychology to try to strengthen the academic component of the immersive experience.

A final report for the 1968-69 year remarked, “Living and Learning Project has been a success in terms of its service to the community and its existence for Duke University students as the only setting of its kind to offer students an opportunity to live and work in a poverty community and to see what a life of poverty means. This latter accomplishment has been in a limited sense for no one understands poverty unless he has been poor.” In spite of the shortcomings, a student evaluation written in 1970 noted, “It has been a direct, tangible learning experience that could not be matched in an academic classroom situation.” In 1970-71, there was not enough student interest to hold the program. Students continued to be involved with Edgemont through volunteer work and fundraising, including an annual basketball game between the Duke and UNC freshman men’s teams, sponsored by the Inter-Fraternity Council. The Edgemont neighborhood was later a target of urban renewal, and many of the buildings in the neighborhood no longer exist, including the community center. Although the Edgemont experiment lasted only a few years, we see its legacy today in programs like DukeEngage, Global Education, and the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership.