Twenty-five and Counting

January 31, 2009
Lasting chords: Mary Lou Williams Center today hosts weekly jazz concerts.

Lasting chords: Mary Lou Williams Center today hosts weekly jazz concerts. Michael Zirkle

As the center marks its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, alumni and friends are highlighting its origins in the civil rights movement, recognizing those who have contributed to its growth, and celebrating its present-day status as a lively campus gathering spot.

Most recently, over Homecoming Weekend, the center collaborated with the Duke University Black Alumni Connection (DUBAC) to host a series of events that included a lecture on Williams' cultural impact given by Tammy Kernodle, a musicology professor at Miami University and the author of Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams; an evening of live jazz; a formal twenty-fifth-anniversary gala; and a Sunday brunch, during which DUBAC honored Martina Bryant, the long-serving associate dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, who retired this year.

Neil Williams '06, a teaching assistant in Duke's Film/Video/Digital program who is creating a documentary film about the center's history for release this spring, capitalized on the occasion to interview alumni about their experiences at Duke. (He had already spent months poring over archival photos and accounts and interviewing alumni and administrators who played important roles in the development of the center.)

He has traced the inspiration for the center back to the 1967 founding of Duke's first Afro-American Society and the 1969 Allen Building takeover, during which black undergraduates called for an African-American-studies department and an increase in black student enrollment, among other things.

In his interviews, alumni from the 1970s described having only an informal hangout where they could go to find camaraderie. Many black students from the era jokingly referred to one corner of the main West Campus dining hall as the "black cultural center."

The Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture was founded in 1983 and named in honor of the jazz legend, who arranged songs for Duke Ellington, was among the first jazz musicians to perform in Carnegie Hall, contributed scores to Dizzy Gillespie's big band, and worked alongside the likes of Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell. Williams served as artist in residence at Duke from 1977 until her death in 1981.

Originally located in the basement of the West Union Building, the Mary Lou Williams center moved to new digs in the old Oak Room on the building's second floor in 2003.

Whatever its location, the center's core purpose has remained constant, says Torraine Williams '93, DUBAC's interim president. "It's a nice place for students—any students, but particularly minority groups on campus—to come and feel like they have a home."

Different people use the space differently. Students often stop by to hang out or study between classes, and student groups hold meetings at the center. It also plays host to cultural events like poetry readings, concerts, and art exhibitions.

But Neil Williams says that through his interviews he's also come to appreciate the center as a sort of cultural reserve, where all members of an increasingly diverse Duke community can come to learn about "African-American culture and the African- American experience."

Homecoming Weekend was an opportunity for many alumni to reminisce about the center's place in their time at Duke. Chandra Guinn, the center's director, says she talked with alumni about their memories of time spent in the center and of those leaders who made it possible. Several spoke fondly of founding director Ed Hill, who died in 1995, as well as his successors, Leon Dunkley and C.T. Woods-Powell. One alumna from Florida e-mailed a story about helping to organize the center's opening. An alumnus from Durham recalled singing alongside Mary Lou Williams in a concert in the late 1970s.

Given the center's namesake, it's appropriate that these days it's best-known for "Jazz at the Mary Lou," the weekly jams that attract a diverse crowd of students, faculty and staff members, and Durham residents. Guinn, Neil Williams, and others connected with the center say they relish the opportunity to make new memories.