LGBTQ History & Activism: Duke, Durham and Beyond


The students visit the Levine Museum of the New South to see the exhibit “Pauli Murray: Imp, Crusader, Dude, Priest.”

LGBTQ History & Activism is a seminar course focused on documenting and analyzing LGBTQ life and activism at Duke and in Durham. Designed as a learning community, students in the course conduct oral histories, work with archival materials, engage community activists, and develop original research that gives voice to a largely ignored history of struggle and survival in these local LGBTQ communities. The class is designed as a service-learning course that supports the ongoing effort, Queering Duke History, and the Durham LGBTQ community history project. In collaboration with community partners, students will work to develop a final public humanities project that reflects what has been taught in the course and supports the goals of the community partners. Access the Syllabus

Lead Faculty: Barbara Lau, Director of the Pauli Murray Project at the Duke Human Rights Center @ the Franklin Humanities Institute. Service Learning Graduate Students: Mendal Polish and Aaron Hayworth.


The students took a field trip to the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, NC to visit the exhibit “Pauli Murray: Imp, Crusader, Dude, Priest” (Explore the Exhibit), along with three other exhibits.

The students reflected on the exhibits using prompts provided by Dr. Lau that looked at life as an LGBTQ student throughout history, the task of collecting, analyzing, and writing LGBTQ history, and common themes throughout the exhibits:

This story-like method of curating differs completely from the other three exhibits in the museum, which all grapple with ambiguity and incompleteness, a truly vital tool in telling history. In Linda Shopes’ “Making Sense of Oral History,” she refers to a quote from oral historians Dublin and Licht, who argue that “unevenness is a valuable concept” in historical analysis, and Shopes adds that it is important to “talk about [people’s] lives in ways that do not easily fit into preexisting categories of analysis” (Shopes 4). Indeed, from Shopes and Portelli’s readings, I have discovered that in oral history, and history more generally, it is important to be the “creator” of history: organizing, challenging, and questioning all information – old and new. Only then can one really add depth to historical analysis.

 Paulli Murray ExhibitThe curator clearly used four vertical banners, each representing the four identities in the title, to dominate the exhibit and immediately lay the foundation for Murray’s life as complicated and intersectional. Additionally, one wall of the exhibit, entitled “Human Rights are Indivisible,” depicts how Murray was simultaneously male and female, black and white, homosexual and heterosexual, and working and middle class.

The questions and challenges fueled by the field trip and our readings, cause me to reflect on the Queering Duke History project and our work this semester. To what extent is the Queering Duke History project falling into trite conventions of storytelling? On one hand, the whole documentary project was intended to uncover the “dark days” of LGBTQ life at Duke while also crafting a more triumphant and inclusive ending. But in what ways is the project effectively more abstract; contradicting itself, and grappling with inconsistencies both in Duke’s LGBTQ past and present LGBTQ life? Finally, where do we fit in? Do we try to shove it into a box so we can appeal to a wider audience and make the Duke student body more cognizant of the LGBTQ history at their school? Or do we try to deepen the research further and complicate what has already been discovered? – Andrew Jacobs, ’16

Pauli Murray flyerI have come to understand that key dates and events cannot by themselves sum up the history of this movement. Timelines provide useful highlighting of major accomplishments and failures behind the history, giving us a glimpse at how the movement has proceeded, but this episodic storytelling on its own lacks the personal touch that individual experiences bring to the table. The LGBTQ movement is a very personal one, one whose story cannot be sufficiently told through facts and dates alone. I have reached the conclusion that timelines provide exhibits with a quintessential foundation from which personal anecdotes and experiences can be conveyed. Yet this foundation on its own does not communicate the entire history. What brings the exhibits to life and enables the true inculcation of the movement into the visitors’ minds are the newspaper clippings, the letters, the interviews, and the journal entries, essentially the human aspect behind this human movement.

Though the specifics may vary from movement to movement, the end goal is often the same: equality. I believe that Pauli Murray perhaps sums this idea up the best. “As a human being, I cannot allow myself to be fragmented into Negro at one time, woman at another, or worker at another. I must find a unifying principle in all these movements to which I can adhere…This, it seems to me, is not only good politics but also may be the price of survival” (Pauli Murray: Imp, Crusader, Dude, Priest). – James Powers, ’15 

Read one student’s collection of poems written in response to the exhibits:

A Collection of Poems: Iowa: 1962, Durham Psychiatrist Office, March 1965: Diagnosable/Frigid, Due University, 1964: Perverts, Durham 1968: the Job Interview – Naomi Cabry 

Memory Bandits: Preserving and Interpreting Knowledges of the Past

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Students of the “Memory Bandits” class.

Memory Bandits is a collaborative seminar designed by Duke University and the Central European University (Budapest, Hungary) to look at the issue of archives, memory, and human rights, introducing students to various emergent approaches to thinking about the past and its role in shaping the present. The class will focus on ways students can critically engage with archives and their particular strategies for preserving and providing access to the past, as well as the implications this management of memory has for contemporary social justice issues. The syllabus is organized around topics and interdisciplinary approaches that are of interest in history, public history and museum studies, cultural anthropology, Holocaust and genocide studies, literature and cultural studies, critical legal studies, gender studies and film studies. In the broadest sense, records of the past are open not only to interpretation, but also mobilization and deployment both to preserve and teach about the past but also to distort and repress it. The title of the course comes from the work of Verne Harris, who works as the archivist of the papers of Nelson Mandela. We will introduce specific examples of archives, so as to give students “hands-­on” experiences with exploring archives, and to offer possibilities for developing a focused research project. Access the Syllabus

Lead Faculty: Robin Kirk, Faculty Co-Chair, Executive Committee, at DHRC@FHI and Patrick Stawski, Human Rights Archive, Duke University.