Thirteen years before the Duke University Board of Trustees voted in 1961 to desegregate the graduate and professional schools, Duke Divinity School faculty and students, motivated by their Christian faith, had started pushing for integration through soul-searching discussions and written petitions.
Support for integration was more than an altruistic show of solidarity with people who had been denied the benefits of an education at the Divinity School, but also came from a growing realization that a segregated education denied all students the opportunity to realize a vision of the world where people were truly united in Christ.
As a leader in the push for integration at Duke, the Divinity School had begun struggling with the issue as early as 1938, reflected in an editorial in a student publication addressing the way many students saw their role in promoting interracial justice in the Jim Crow-era South.
So when the Duke University Board of Trustees voted March 8, 1961 to desegregate the graduate and professional schools, it was a move that had long been supported by many Divinity School students and faculty.
In time, Divinity School faculty and students would come to understand that desegregation would have a transformative power not only on the school but on the very character of the university, expanding its canon of knowledge and modes of scholarship.
Early calls for integration
Integration was an issue the Divinity School community struggled with for more than two decades before the trustee voted and offered, to many, a perfect opportunity to promote interracial justice and cooperation.
“If Christian social ideals are to be advanced substantially in the South, they will be advanced by both colored and white people working not independently of each other, but together,” the 1938 editorial in the Divinity School student quarterly, Christian Horizons, stated. “Southern students are placed providentially in a position whereby they, personally, may have an enormous part in bringing about interracial justice and cooperation.”
While it would be 10 more years before the students would send their first petition to the university, Divinity School student sentiment for integration was already strong. A 1940 poll conducted by the Christian Horizons staff confirmed that 78 percent of students favored integrating the school.
In 1948, 119 of the 124 students enrolled in the Divinity School petitioned the university to allow the admission of black students to the school.
“The admission of Negroes to our school would provide a type and quality of training for them in this area which is necessary but not now available to them,” the students wrote. “Whereas, we are now a part of a segregated Divinity School community which does not afford us opportunity for understanding and appreciating Negro Christians preparing for the ministry … [we] request that serious consideration be given … to the admission of Negroes to the Divinity School.”
These petitions were repeated in subsequent years by both students and faculty. A petition circulated in the Dec. 19, 1958 edition of the student publication Response began, “Once again as the season of good will approaches, we feel bound in conscience to express to you our deep concern and perplexity over the racially restrictive admissions policy of the Divinity School. … We have told you in the past of the anguish of spirit it causes us to be recommending to our people a set of values which is not accepted by the great and progressive university of which we are members.”
Kress lunch counter sit-ins
For the Divinity School community, the issue of integration extended beyond the classroom. A group of Divinity School students and faculty were also active in the lunch counter protests in Durham, N.C. — demonstrations at Kress, Woolworth’s, and Walgreens stores that led to mass arrests.
In early February 1960, Bill Sharpe was one of 11 Divinity School students at Durham’s White Rock Baptist Church to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been invited in response to the Greensboro sit-ins.
“Most of us on the second row that night were struggling internally to unite our youthful idealism with the reality of what was happening in our society,” wrote Sharpe in an essay, “The Kress Sit-ins.”
A third-year student and chair of the school’s social action committee, Sharpe continued, “Until recently, we had been a part of the unfair treatment that our black brothers and sisters had known all of their lives. We knew, almost to a man, that our home congregations would not have understood what brought us there.”
After hearing King, five of the 11 divinity students at the White Rock service decided to go the next morning to S.H. Kress & Co., a retail store in downtown Durham. They took seats at the lunch counter, and then gave them up to what Sharpe described as “the bravest persons I have ever known, mostly students from N.C. Central University (then named N.C. College).”
“The hatred that we felt from the white customers gave us some idea [of what those students must have been feeling] because with our behavior we had crossed the line of acceptable behavior,” he wrote. “The arrests that were made that day brought more repercussions than any of us might have imagined. Confused students were not sure exactly what had to be done to change what we perceived as unfair attitudes and hardened hearts, but we knew something had to happen.”
First African-American students
Whether motivated by moral concerns as expressed by the Divinity School community and others, or by the fear that the federal government would withdraw funds, the Duke University Board of Trustees finally voted to desegregate the graduate schools in March of 1961. It was initially unclear whether there would be time for any black students to attend the Divinity School that fall. But Ruben Lee Speaks, who already had a B.D. (the precursor to today’s M.Div. degree), entered in September 1961 as a special student and was the first black student to attend the school.
He was followed the next year by the first black students officially enrolled in the degree program, Matthew A. Zimmerman (M.Div. ‘65) and James Donald Ballard (M.Div. ’66). (See First Black Students at Divinity School Became Church Leaders .) The first black women, Sadye Joyner Milton and Yvonne Beasley (both M.Div. ’76) entered the school in 1973.
The early years of integration at Duke were still tense. Restrooms were segregated, and there was a separate "colored” section at Wallace Wade Stadium. Divinity School professor William C. Turner, a Divinity School graduate and a member of one of the first Duke University undergraduate classes to include African Americans, noted that there was a very real danger associated with integrating the school.
“In the South, integration was lethally dangerous,” he said. “So much about the way the social order was arranged was read out of or into the Scriptures. Challenging the order of the world as it was said to be established by God was construed as an act of infidelity, Satan-inspired, an infidel pestilence that could justifiably be stamped out by violence. When you look back in retrospect, you had to either question or applaud the black parents who risked sending their children into danger zones.”
A task unfinished
The risk would reward not only the students who braved the danger, but the students and faculty they would join at Duke. “Bringing black students in was a wedge that pried the school open,” said Turner. “It went from a good Southern institution to a world-class university.”
“Colonialism was falling all over the world, and there was a scholarship scarcely known in the West that was receiving new attention, a scholarship that educated white people didn’t know about,” he said. “It pushed back the boundaries of ignorance, forcing the engagement of the school with a broader current. It forced issues cordoned off as a ‘race problem’ right into the heart of the intellectual discourse.”
It was a task that integration alone could not complete. “When we were there, we appreciated what Duke offered, and we were very conscious of some areas where it could improve,” said Beasley, one of the first students. “We were very proactive and alert, and always looking for ways that the black religious experience could become a base part of seminary life.”
That legacy lives on in the Office of Black Church Studies, established in 1972; the Martin Luther King Jr. and Gardner C. Taylor lecture series, which began in 1975 and bring nationally known black preachers to the school, and in the requirement that all M.Div. students take a course relating to the black church, which in 1974 was the first such a policy in a seminary.
The legacy also lives on in the administration, faculty, and students at the school who continue to discern how to further this work.
“I think it’s important to mark this anniversary,” said Beasley. “It encourages the university to continue its strides on behalf of people of color, to not become complacent but continue to develop programs and a ministry that prepares these students to work in the larger faith community.”