Duke During Segregation

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In the early twentieth century, African Americans were employed at Duke primarily in positions within the dining halls, custodial service, and maid service.  One notable exception was Julian Abele, an African American architect from Philadelphia working with Horace Trumbauer, who was the chief designer for Duke’s East and West campuses. He created the distinctive looks of the two campuses as Trinity College was transformed into Duke University between 1925 and 1932. While Abele’s race was largely unknown at the time, the contributions of African American construction workers and stonemasons were well-documented.  As part of Abele’s work, he was required by law to include segregated facilities for black and white employees.  These are seen in his design for the West Campus Union. Segregation persisted for decades. Even when the black and white staff shared a common holiday celebration in 1946, the two races were seated separately.

The Divinity School students were the first group on campus to advocate for Duke’s desegregation—starting with their own school. A 1948 petition was followed by a report the following year from Divinity School faculty stating that they were in favor of admitting African American day students. Neither the petition nor the report swayed the Board of Trustees or President A. Hollis Edens, both of whom were unwilling to address the issue directly. In 1950, Virgil C. Stroud of Greensboro requested consideration as a prospective student. President Edens’s response made it clear that Duke’s unwritten “policy” remained in force.

Duke made a small step toward integration in 1951 when it hosted a basketball team from Temple University with an African American starter, Samuel Sylvester.  This was the campus’s first interracial basketball game. Sylvester received a nearly two minute ovation from the entirely white crowd at the end of his playing time.

During the 1950s, members of the student body and faculty periodically advocated for desegregation on both moral and reputational grounds. The Men’s Student Government officers issued a call for a desegregated Duke in 1959.