Prior to the Civil War, Washington Duke and his family worked together farming wheat, oats, and sweet potatoes on over 300 acres of land which had been bought and inherited over the years. The work was strenuous, and for assistance Washington Duke hired slaves from other plantations.  He owned one slave girl who worked as the housemaid.

During and after the Civil War, the Duke family switched to the farming of tobacco and slowly rose to prominence by establishing the world’s greatest tobacco empire.

James Buchanan Duke continued the legacy of his father by establishing the Duke Endowment in 1924. The $40 million indenture paved the way for the transformation of Trinity College into Duke University.  At a time of intense racial polarization, James B. Duke’s indenture did not set up an explicit system of racial segregation within the university, indicating that his views on segregation may not have been entirely aligned with the public sentiment of the time. It was a well known fact that a black man by the name of Julian Francis Abele was the chief designer of the chapel and other buildings of Trinity College, later to become Duke University.

University policy in the 1920s excluded blacks from admissions and also restricted blacks from using certain campus facilities such as the dining halls and dorm housing. While these restrictions were common practice, they were not written explicitly in the official policy.  In 1948, a group of divinity school students petitioned the divinity school to desegregate – the first concerted effort to push for the desegregation of Duke’s admission policy.

After years of deliberation between University leadership, faculty and students, the Board of Trustees passed a resolution opening Duke’s graduate schools to black students on March 8, 1961. Six students enrolled that fall for the 1961-1962 school year. Three withdrew after registration but Walter Johnson Jr. and David Robinson II went on to complete their law degrees, and R.L. Speaks his divinity degree.

It was not until almost a year later, on June 2, 1963, that the Board of Trustees finally resolved to open the undergraduate college to black students. In Sept. 1963, five black undergraduates enrolled: Gene Kendall, Mary Mitchell, Cassandra Smith, Nathaniel White, and Wilhelmina Reuben.  After 15 years of deliberation by the Board of Trustees, faculty and students, the University was entirely desegregated.

Marianne Twu, Duke 2010

 

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