During this past academic year — as the University commemorated the 50th anniversary of the arrival of its first black undergraduates — we’ve presented several behind-the-scene essays on how Duke overcame segregation in admissions. First, in the graduate and professional schools in 1961, and then, unexpectedly, in the undergraduate colleges at Commencement 1962.
Those Trustee decisions did nothing to begin to desegregate the faculty nor the staff. And they presaged great moments which we will describe when their anniversaries come. Most notably, the Silent Vigil for economic justice that gripped the University after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and, a year later, the take-over of Allen Building and the dismissal of President Douglas Knight.
We have only alluded to the Medical Center — as it was then called — in part because this blog does not cover Duke Medicine with the same depth that we accord to the educational and research missions of the University. Please allow us to add this observation:
There was never a vote of the Trustees, that we are aware of, to institute nor to terminate segregation: the white waiting rooms, the colored waiting rooms; the white treatment rooms, the colored treatment rooms; and the split hospital wards.
Those barriers, and others, fell one at a time because of the work and determination of individuals acting on their own. We’ve mentioned some: the Medical School Dean (today he’d be called Chancellor) Dr. Barnes Woodhall and Dr. William S. Lynn Jr., known now to Loyal Readers as the professor with the can of solvent who by night would eradicate signs on rest room doors designating white or black. What a story!
We cannot understate the role of federal money, either.
In 1946, Congress took the first big step in aiding medicine, providing for the construction of modern hospitals throughout the nation. One specific provision of the law — an obvious concession to the southern yahoos in order to get the measure passed — allowed racial discrimination so long as separate but equal facilities were provided. The Supreme Court struck that down in 1963, part of the swirl of changes occurring throughout society. And Duke quickly realized that its separate waiting rooms in the diagnostic clinics and separate floors in the hospital had to change.
To conclude this series, we turn attention to the staff at Duke, and discuss two people: a maid in the freshmen dorms, and a janitor working overnight in an administrator’s office.
I cannot recall ever writing for this blog in the first person singular, but today I will as I stretch back 50 years. Yes, that’s when the guy who is behind DukeCheck graduated, ’63, Law ’66. (Luckily there are some Deputy DukeCheckers who are far more current).
Yes, a long time ago, when tuition and fees totaled $800 in my freshman year and $1300 in my last year.
On the day I arrived for my freshman year, at the top of the steps in a Kilgo Quad dorm, a lady who was probably 40 years ago and dressed in a black and white uniform called out a cheerful welcome. She said “Hi, my name is Mary,” and I said I was Ed. She looked sheepishly, explaining I could be Mr. Ed, but never just Ed.
We had maids six days a week in the dorm rooms — the rooms — not the halls or bathrooms. They made our beds, they changed our linens if you left out clean sheets. They hung up all our clothes. They emptied the waste paper basket and dusted and waxed and polished the floor. The windows, which swung open like barn doors, were cleaned inside and out. My father called Duke a country club. (On Sundays, only the bathrooms were cleaned by male janitors).
The maids, all black female, wore uniforms and reported at 8 AM and worked until 1 PM.
I arrived on a hot day and among many observations, I noticed that the water cooler in the anteroom of the bathroom — were there were tables for your books and hooks for your clothes — was broken.
That night, three workmen, all white, hovered over it and got it going again.
The second day was beastly, and returning from orientation in Page Auditorium around noon, I encountered Mary. She was half-in, half-out of a small, smelly closet where she kept her cleaning supplies, holding a clear glass gallon jug.
The jug reminded me of home, because we had precisely the same glass jug containing bleach next to our washing machine.
As Mary poured herself a glass of water from the jug, she said innocently that it would sure be nice to have a cool drink. And I replied, happy to convey the news, that the water cooler had been fixed.
Mary seemed to look past me. Over my shoulder, staring into the stone hall, saying nothing.
I figured she perhaps did not know the fountain had been broken and repaired. So I repeated the fountain was working quite well now and pointed toward it. And that’s when she said quietly, matter of factly, “We cannot use that fountain.”
If it is possible to shiver when the temperature is hovering near 100 and it is humid, I did.
The only place I had encountered segregation was on a family trip to the eastern shore of Maryland when I was a kid, probably around 10 years old. While my father gassed the car, I remember looking for the men’s room and finding two. White. Colored. Next to each other.
I went back and asked my father about this, and he explained. I listened, and turned to go to the bathroom, and in my first act of defiance, used the one reserved for blacks. I can still remember the look on the face of a white man I passed as I exited.
And in my first act of defiance at Duke, I took Mary’s hand, walked her toward the men’s room, checked to insure it was empty, nudged her into the anteroom and stood guard while she filled her glass.
It was our secret; we repeated this all during my freshman year. And not one of the white boys on the third floor of my dorm became ill.
As Christmas approached, my best friend Fred, who had more focus than anyone I have ever met and more determination to become a doctor than I could ever imagine, was planning to fly to Florida to join his family. (Fred was valedictorian of his medical school class)
We had learned that Mary’s husband was a cab driver, and Fred, who saw less of Mary because of his class and lab schedule, asked me to inquire whether her husband could take Fred to the airport.
Mary looked astonished, pleased but astonished, and said she would ask her husband.
The next day, she said that it “looked OK,” because her husband normally drove by campus to pick her up as she left work and that’s the precise time Fred wanted to escape. And then she said, quietly, with no emphasis, that her husband had said it was OK because they’d be leaving town immediately and be out on the highway, and drivers in Chapel Hill and Raleigh were beginning to carry whites.
I could not believe this: Mary’s husband had never driven a white person.
The next day, Mary asked if I thought “Mr. Fred,” as she called him, would mind if she rode along to the airport. When I said of course not, she was overjoyed. Allowing that she had not been outside the city of Durham for 21 years.
Mary wanted to work five days a week, not six. She wanted more than 30 hours of pay, and did not like the layoffs when the student body was not on campus, so she left Duke after 18 years at the end of my freshman year to work in a home in Durham.
Our maid was named Mary, and I shamefully must admit I never knew her last name.
And now Oliver Harvey.
One day in the law school, a janitor named Larry — I am sorry to admit once again, that like with Mary, I never knew his last name — was acting almost as if he were doing something he shouldn’t. Gingerly, he approached two students hanging out near a Coke machine.
The two had spoken loudly with a letter to the Chronicle challenging President Knight for continuing to sell building lots in Duke Forest to faculty members, lots that contained covenants against ever reselling or renting to a black. Or even letting a black stay on the property overnight unless he or she was household help.
“We notice,” Larry said, “that you are not afraid of them.” And so he asked if we could help draft a petition to the Administration for a pay hike.
Eight years earlier, Larry explained, such a petition had worked, resulting in a nickle, and Larry said another raise like that would please him so.
At the time, Larry was making 85 cents an hour, Mary was making 65 cents an hour.The federal minimum wage was $1.25, but the legislation had many loopholes. Among those not covered: workers at private universities.
And so a self-appointed committee of four law students — all of them night owls — was formed. In short order, Larry said the expected, that some maids and janitors might fear signing a petition, unless they were at a meeting where they could all sign together.
Asked if he thought such a meeting was feasible, Larry said without hesitation that Oliver Harvey could assemble “everybody.”
Few students encountered Oliver. He worked overnight in an elegant house on Myrtle Drive (now called Campus Drive) originally built for Vice President Robert Flowers but later converted into offices. And ironically, it had become the offices of institutional advancement. Namely, the fund-raisers concerned about making the place better.
Oliver was a slight man, a bit stooped, one hand painful with arthritis which in part explained his assignment. He could spend more time dusting and cleaning in the offices — and less time gripping a mop. It was hard to guess his age, perhaps 45 with some premature greying and thick glasses.
And so the law students would meet Oliver Harvey in the office of the vice president for institutional advancement at 1 AM most Tuesdays to talk strategy, to line up support, to write appropriate letters, and eventually to draft a petition on the vice president’s secretary’s typewriter. I loved it.
Oliver looked amazed at the speed with which the words flowed together. I wish, he would say repeatedly, that I could “phrase-er-ize” the way you guys do. Phraserize. Phraserize. Oliver used the word all the time.
A union was out; there was too much resistance to the very word among white people, too much fear among blacks. Moreover, the only union we could find headquartered in Durham that might help was the hod carriers union, devoted to construction workers carrying the bricks for masons. And the hod carriers had problems of their own.
In due course, Oliver scheduled a meeting, first in a small church, and then two days later he moved it to the basement of the largest black church in town.
A petition was drafted. The Duke Employees Benevolent Society was formed. It did not seek a contract, it sought a nickle.
The petition got no further than one story in the Durham Sun, the evening paper in those days. Allen Building had no response for more than two and a half years. During that time, a small knot of students kept the idea alive, and one day Oliver Harvey (center) mustered enough determination to stand with them at a table on the main quad distributing literature. No black employee had ever stood up like that before at Duke.
Finally, with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and hundreds of people standing silent day after day on the main quad in a vigil for economic justice, the chair of the Trustees flew in from Detroit (where he was a leading executive of a car company) and relented. A nickle.
The chair’s name was Wright Tisdale (center in the picture) The look on his face as he joined students and muddled through “We Shall Overcome” was priceless.