Faces of Hope: Integrating Duke

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Occasionally, something good would happen that just baffled the First Five, like when one of them, Wilhelmina Reuben, was elected the May Queen their senior year.

“She represented Duke and was in a parade in Wilmington, N.C. in 1967,” White said. “You almost can’t figure out how the hell that happened.”

According to Duke’s website, Ruben won by “earning the most write-in votes of any female student in her class.”

Change at Duke was slow but steady—and most of it happened after the First Five had left, but it happened because White and the others broke the racial barrier. As the black student population at Duke grew, the culture changed. Today, 9 to 11% of entering undergrads are black, according to Duke’s website.

“After most black people endured Duke they didn’t have much of a pension for coming back,” White said. “There was no black cultural center, as there is now. I never had a class with other black students. I never had a black faculty member teach me. By the time I was a senior I wanted to get the hell out of there.”

After Duke, White earned a master’s of philosophy in mathematical statistics and probability from George Washington University. He worked for 16 years as a biostatistician at the National Institutes of Health, is former director of Morehouse College’s Office of Sponsored Research and Programs and eventually returned to Durham to be involved in redeveloping his historic community, once serving as president of the Hayti Development Corporation.

And today, he even returns to Duke, the place he was so happy to leave.

“What galvanized us to come back was to see what we could do for students like us,” he said.

In other words, the surviving First Five returned to help the black students who have followed them. They joined the small but growing number of black graduates to form the Duke University Black Alumni Connection. “We felt the attrition rate was bad and we wanted to find a way to change that,” said White.

He has a “kinship” with all fellow black Duke graduates, especially those from the early days of integration. He also met one of his best friends at Duke, Kent Burningham, who is white and was his last roommate.

“We are kindred spirits,” said White. “He was very much like my best friend from high school.”

That best friend from home, George Creed, said “Buddy” White was the perfect person to integrate Duke– academically brilliant and well prepared by the top notch teachers at Hillside.

“We grew up in segregated times. The big advantage for us students was I don’t care how much education a person had, about the best you could do was be a school teacher,” said Creed,. “Because our smartest people couldn’t do anything else, they taught us.”

Creed, who went to Tuskegee Institute and became a veterinarian, said when he returned to Durham for a year he often visited White on Duke’s campus.

“Buddy had a way of getting along with everybody,” said Creed. “You could get somebody with a chip on their shoulder or who was not as academically gifted.”

Creed said they were all helped also by growing up in Hayti, where they saw black people who owned their own businesses and were millionaires.

“We had the attitude we could do anything we wanted, if you just get out of our way.”

The honors for his friend and the others of the First Five are “long overdue,” Creed said.

This year Duke is marking the 50th anniversary of the integration of Duke and White and the two other surviving members of the First Five are returning to campus to be honored. In addition to White, the survivors are:  Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke and Gene Kendall. The other two students, now deceased, were Mary Mitchell Harris and Cassandra Smith Rush.

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