Standing For What's Right

Selections from University Archives
Writer: 
October 1, 2007
Standing for what's right: members of Kappa Chi and an excerpt from their petition

Standing for what's right: members of Kappa Chi and an excerpt from their petition. Duke University Archives

Last May Max Wicker '49, B.D. '52, an unsung hero of the early efforts to desegregate Duke, died quietly. At Duke, Wicker and several of his classmates, including Henry Bizzell Jr. '49, M.Div. '52 and Bob Regan '49, M.Div. '52, promoted a petition proposing to integrate the Divinity School in 1949.

Together with other members of Kappa Chi, the pre-ministerial honor fraternity, they circulated a petition requesting that "the facilities of all Divinity schools should be available to members of all races, and that interracial experience during our training is necessary if we are to have a true understanding of Christian brotherhood." Among the 160 petitioners were a number of World War II veterans who had served with African Americans in the war. After their return, many found a segregated society unacceptable.

Wicker recruited his roommate (and my father) Dwight Pyatt '49, M.Div. '52 to participate. George Tyson '50, B.D. '55, the uncle of Duke faculty member Tim Tyson Ph.D '94, was also a signer. (The younger Tyson is the author of the acclaimed Blood Done Sign My Name, about growing up in Oxford with a father who was the town's anti-segregationist Methodist minister.) President Hollis Edens, while privately supportive of the petition, told the students that Duke could not get too far ahead of society. Most of the students felt that he was waiting for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to desegregate first.

It would be over a decade before the board of trustees "resolved that qualified applicants may be admitted to degree programs in the Graduate and Professional Schools in Duke University, effective September 1, 1961, without regard to race, creed, or national origin." Changes in undergraduate admissions followed two years later, in 1963.