Pauli Murray mural in Durham's West End. Photograph by Robin Kirk.

Pauli Murray mural in Durham’s West End. Photograph by Robin Kirk.

This series of events, classes and speakers examined how the human rights abuses of the past influenced the present and can be harnessed toward social justice in the future. A project of the Duke Human Rights Center@the Franklin Humanities Institute and the Pauli Murray Project, Dangerous Memories took as one starting point the words of Durham daughter Pauli Murray, who urges us to accept “the whole past” and derive strength from all of our roots and face up “to the degradation as well as the dignity” of our ancestors.

What does that mean in practice? In countries like South Africa, Chile, Hungary, the United Kingdom’s Northern Ireland, Germany and Cambodia among others, that means grappling with difficult pasts in a way that promotes discussion and supports reforms that protect human rights. We also brought these questions directly to the Duke campus, which we’re treating as a laboratory to ask questions about how we remember and memorialize the past and what changes might open up a more inclusive discussion of the university’s roots.


Constructing Memory at Duke and in Durham

When asked recently how Duke could work to dismantle oppression in North Carolina and Durham, #BlackLivesMatter founder Patrisse Cullors offered a blunt response. “You would need to cease to exist… Institutions like Duke were built on the backs of anti-black racism, the genocide of indigenous people.”

Abele plan (1)

West campus as drawn by architect Julian Abele

Cullers’ challenge goes beyond metaphor and is deeply grounded in the bricks and mortar of campus. On West, founder James B. Duke stands for an enlightened capitalism built within a structure of violent white supremacy. On East, his father, Washington Duke, sits comfortably in a chair whose brass fringe might just have been cleaned by the family slave. The trustees recently approved the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from the Chapel as well as segregationist North Carolina governor Charles Aycock’s name from a Duke dormitory. But the History Department building still honors Julian S. Carr, whose segregationist views were publicly aired at the 1913 dedication of the University of North Carolina’s “Silent Sam” statue. To the audience, Carr publicly boasted that he’d performed a “pleasing duty” when he “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”

To be sure, a few locations on campus reflect a more complex past. During anti-apartheid protests in 1986, Duke sophomore Susan Cook replied to a Chronicle letter to the editor by citing the architectural work done by her great granduncle, Julian Abele, a black man. Abele designed the Duke’s Manhattan mansion, then was tapped to provide the overall design for their new university in Durham. The university later installed a portrait of Abele in the Allen building.

Unsung Founders memorial at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

Unsung Founders memorial at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

However, these additions remain little more than tokens. Other universities are well ahead of Duke, among them UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Mississippi and Brown. UNC-Chapel Hill installed “Unsung Founders” in 2005, acknowledging the role enslaved peoples played in the construction of the campus. At the University of Mississippi, a statue of James Meredith, who integrated the campus in 1962, now marks the entrance to the Oxford campus.

In 2003, Brown University created a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice that prepared a report about the University’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Among the recommendations was the installation of a memorial acknowledging the university’s ties to the slave trade The university unveiled the memorial in conjunction with the school’s 250th anniversary. Designed by Martin Puryear, the two-part memorial includes a partially buried ball and chain and a stone plinth with engraved text. The sculpture complements curriculum for Brown and K-12 students, a public acknowledgement of the university’s ties and investments in the Providence community.

However, it’s worth noting that most universities have yet to engage in a deep examination and public acknowledgement of their history. In this sense, Duke could be among the leaders in this area, fostering a deep and broad rethinking of the past and a positive plan for establishing a fuller account of its history

In 2016-2017, DHRC@FHI faculty and staff delved into Duke history and how it is reflected on campus. In a project supported by Bass Connections and the Archives Alive! project at the Rubenstein Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, we completed a thorough review of existing sites, creating the first-ever digital map of memory sites at Duke, including statues, plaques, named sites and portraits. In addition, students worked with the University Archives to create a story bank of moments in Duke’s history that should be commemorated in a physical way. Students also designed their own sites, including one that commemorates the 1968 “Silent Vigil” as well as the first women and African Americans to graduate from and teach at the University.

Our final report, with recommendations on how to expand and deepen Duke’s memory map, create orientation and campus tours, and proposed proposed stories to embody, will be released in April 2018, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the “Silent Vigil.”

Look of Silence

from “The Look of Silence”

Rights! Camera! Action film series

Our films this academic year look at what it means to remember stories that are suppressed, problematic or reveal painful truths about the past that many would like to forget. We start with “And Still I Rise,” a riveting documentary on the life and legacy of American writer Maya Angelou. Best known as a poet and writer, her career was actually much more colorful, with stints as a fry cook, sex worker, nightclub dancer, opera singer and committed activist. Next, we feature “The Look of Silence,”a family of survivors of the 1965 Indonesian genocide discover how their son was murdered, as well as the identities of the killers. The documentary focuses on the youngest son, an optometrist named Adi, who decides to break the suffocating spell of submission and terror by doing something unimaginable in a society where the murderers remain in power: he confronts the men who killed his brother and, while testing their eyesight, asks them to accept responsibility for their actions.

DavisIn the spring, we open “The Price of Forgiveness.” In Pakistan, more than 1000 women perceived as having compromised the “honor” of their families are reported to be killed each year. Families are often pressured to forgive and absolve the aggressors, which allows them to return to the community. Told through the lens of a love story, this Oscar-nominated documentary examines the tensions between modernism and tradition in Pakistan. We close the year with “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011),” a riveting documentary featuring found footage shot by a group of Swedish journalists (discovered some 30 years later in the cellar of Swedish Television) overlaid with commentaries and interviews from leading contemporary African-American artists, activists, musicians and scholars. Divided into 9 sections based chronologically on each successive year between 1967 and 1975, the film focuses on several topics and subjects relevant to the Black Power Movement including Opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam War, the Black Panther Party, COINTELPRO, and the War on Drugs. 

The Pauli Murray Project will also take part in this project by engaging students in the creation of an interpretive plan for The Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, an in-progress sire located in her family’s Durham home. This project will engage students in a public

Fitzgerald house, home of Pauli Murray

Fitzgerald house, home of Pauli Murray

humanities challenge around researching the possibilities created by designing an interpretive vision for the house as a site of conscience. Informed by the work of theologian Johann Baptist Metz, we are asking how we can paint “dangerous memories” on the historical landscape of Durham. Key questions include how museums and historic sites shift the public’s understanding of the “American Experience” and “American History” by confronting familiar narratives and the primacy of the white, male point of view. Murray’s struggle as a woman of color and a member of the LGBTQ community illuminate the concept of intersectionality through her lived experience. Privileging this perspective means we will be offering an alternative and more inclusive narrative. This plan can also help bring what has been a very academic concept into public conversation.

For more information, please contact Robin Kirk,