Duke’s Chappell Family Gallery, by the entrance to Perkins Library on the west campus, always has an exhibit, but usually, students rush by without noticing it. That hasn’t been the case over the last couple of weeks. 

What’s there now is different—eye-catching, urgent, relevant. Vintage photos of chaos. Familiar gothic buildings engulfed in tear gas, surrounded by mobs of students. 

Black Students Matter: Taking Over Allen in ’69—on display through July 14—commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the Allen Building takeover of February 13, 1969. 

That day, about seventy members of Duke’s Afro-American Society broke into the campus’s main administrative office, intending to hold the building hostage until the administration acknowledged their thirteen demands, including the creation of a Department of African and African American Studies, a black dorm on campus, and a black student population proportionate to the state’s. 

The students’ decision to occupy the building was organized and highly democratic, and it followed years of failed efforts to negotiate. The night before, students met at the house of Charles Becton, a first-year law student, to strategize. They wouldn’t go through with the plan unless they had the unanimous support of black students on campus. 

 “No weapons of any kind,” Catherine LeBlanc recalled one of the group’s leaders saying during a talk at Duke for the exhibit’s opening. “We did not want to give the administration or law enforcement any reason to beat us.”

The next morning, the students rented a U-Haul, pulled up beside the Allen Building, and piled out in a hurry. “We were able to get in and lock the door very, very quickly,” said LeBlanc, a sophomore at the time. “We had practiced this thing.”

The students had prepared to occupy the building for days. They’d stocked groceries and playing cards. By that afternoon, however, they’d received word that then-university president Douglas Knight had called the police. They were warned there’d be tear gas. The students readied themselves by squeezing lemon juice in their eyes and putting cigarette filters in their noses.

More than a hundred law enforcement officials convened in the gardens behind the Allen Building. They were met by more than two hundred mostly white students who surrounded the building to protect their black classmates.  

The black student occupiers held a vote on whether to stay put or leave. Most voted to stay. Becton, the vote-keeper, lied about the tally. They vacated at 5:15 p.m. 

“Good thing he did that,” said LeBlanc. Fifteen minutes later, the police came in.

The cops clashed with student protesters, and the confrontation boiled over when they released tear gas. Some twenty-three students were hospitalized, along with two law enforcement officials.

Knight blamed the violence on the black students. 

But Wib Gulley, a former Durham mayor who was a student during the takeover, remembers things differently. 

“If there was anything that was unreasonable, it was the administration bringing Durham police on campus to tear-gas and forcefully remove the students,” he said during the opening. Gulley was next to the Allen Building when the confrontation occurred. “A Durham police officer drew his gun and pointed it at me and some of the students there, and I was very concerned about what was going to happen.”

The student occupiers were denounced as troublemakers and punished. The exhibit includes a Duke Chronicle article from March 19, 1969, which explained how, after a nine-hour hearing, forty-seven students were charged with violating Duke’s “Pickets and Protest” policy.

“When many of us left here, there was quite a bit of ambivalence about Duke,” LeBlanc said. “It was not unusual to feel that folks didn’t want us here.” 

Despite the administration’s reproach, the takeover was a galvanizing event “both in terms of how the students saw their role and in some of the changes that were made afterward,” Gulley said. 

Duke still has issues surrounding race, some of which make news: In 2014, vice president Tallman Trask III allegedly called a black parking attendant a racial slur after he struck her with his Porsche. In December, outgoing vice president Larry Moneta deleted his Facebook account after posting comments from China that some students considered culturally insensitive. And in January, the graduate director of the Duke medical school’s biostatistics program stepped down from that role after sending an email urging Chinese students to “speak English 100% of the time.” 

But there’s also an African and African American Studies department at the school, a black cultural center on campus, and a far greater percentage of black students and faculty. In the past year, Duke has removed a statue of Robert E. Lee from its chapel, and the Board of Trustees voted to remove a white supremacist’s name from the erstwhile Carr Building. 

And much of that progress can be traced to the actions of the Afro-American Society in 1969. 

As Corey Pilson, the chief of staff of the Black Student Alliance, which grew out of the Afro-American Society, said during the exhibit’s opening: “You all started a culture of activism on campus that has kept the university accountable for the last fifty years.”

Erin Williams is an INDY intern. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.