The Long Process of Desegregation


Under mounting pressure from the federal government and some students and faculty, Duke’s Board of Trustees resolved on March 8, 1961, that applicants to the graduate and professional schools would be evaluated without regard to race. In September of that year, the Divinity School and Law School admitted their first African American students.   Desegregating a campus in the middle of the segregated South was not as easy as changing a written policy.  There were preparations that needed to be made to racial signage on campus and a myriad of issues to consider:  What would happen when an integrated Duke sports team played against schools with segregated facilities?  Where would African American parents stay in segregated Durham when they visited campus?  Each of these issues was considered and evaluated by campus administrators.

On June 2, 1962, the Board of Trustees voted to change—and codify—the admissions policy as it related to race.  From that point forward, all applicants would be considered “without regard to race.”  President Deryl Hart and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Bunyan S. Womble received many letters in response to the change.  The majority of these letters were positive and reflected the opinion that it was high time that Duke desegregated, but there were also negative letters from those who opposed desegregation.

Gene Kendall, Mary Mitchell Harris, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, Cassandra Rush Smith, and Nathaniel White, Jr., were the first African American undergraduates to matriculate at Duke.  They arrived in September 1963 with little reaction on campus, providing a stark contrast to the turmoil and violence accompanying desegregation at some other southern universities and the ongoing racial demonstrations throughout the South, including Durham. The five students joined a campus made up of nearly all white students.  The first black faculty member, Samuel DuBois Cook, joined the political science department three years later in 1966. In 1967, Harris, Reuben-Cooke, and White became the first African American students to earn undergraduate degrees from Duke. 

Reuben-Cooke was elected May Queen by her peers at the Woman’s College during her senior year.  This honor was bestowed upon her by a write-in election recognizing her extraordinary achievements.  While not all members of the Duke community were happy with this choice, President Douglas Knight steadfastly defended both Reuben-Cooke and the students in the Woman’s College to detractors.