Nathaniel B. White Jr. stepped into history simply by going to college. With little fanfare, he became part of a group now called the “First Five,” the first Black students to attend Duke University.
It was 1963. Blacks were marching in Birmingham, demanding public facilities be integrated. When violence erupted, President Kennedy sent 3,000 troops to protect the marchers. James Meredith was attending the University of Mississippi, but violence had erupted upon his enrollment and federal troops were sent there to maintain peace also.
White was 18 and had just graduated with honors from Hillside High School in his hometown of Durham, N.C that year.
“That August 28, 1963 at the March on Washington, the White family had a reunion right there on the mall with Martin Luther King,” he said, laughing. “A week or two later, I entered Duke University.”
Initially, he had not planned to attend Duke. He lived four and a half miles from the Duke Chapel but he dreamed of attending Hampton University, which was then called Hampton Institute, the historically black college that his father and favorite uncle had graduated from. In fact, White had a full scholarship to Hampton.
Yet his plans changed when his high school counselor came to him with a suggestion.
“She said there was an opportunity to go to Duke and that it was something I should do,” he recalled.
White said his decision to attend Duke was partially “a bit of a sense of duty.” Plus he never felt his life would be in jeopardy, he said. “My father knew some Duke people and he got the sense I would be protected in that environment.”
But also, White admits, he was naïve about the giant step he was taking into history.
“Growing up was a very insular experience for me,” said White, who grew up in the flourishing and then nationally known black community in Durham called Hayti.
Hayti was once considered the black economic capital of the country. The area was home to more than 200 black-owned businesses, including a bank, hospital and the largest black owned insurance company. White’s father owned a printing company and like many blacks in the community, the family owned their house.
At Duke, White was not met by angry mobs or the violence that had plagued other schools as they were integrated.
“There was real preparation for Duke to integrate,” he said.
Instead of being housed in freshman dorms as was the tradition for new students, the black students were placed in dorms with the more mature upper classmen. Still, White didn’t feel accepted by his fellow classmates as much as he felt tolerated or ignored. He did learn later, though, that some of his classmates actually looked out for him.
“There was a kid who put a black cat in my dresser. He was handled by the other students,” said White.
While there was no outright violence against him, there were incidents that let him know he was not wanted or that some people at Duke were having a difficult time adjusting to his being there. In one case, a teacher changed the grading system for a class to justify giving White, the only student to make 100 on the mid-term, a grade of “C”.
And on campus, where cultural and social activities are a major component of student life, the First Five had to make adjustments.
“We went to keg parties because they were done by the dorms,” White said. “But our dates (who were black) came from North Carolina Central and UNC-Greensboro and the First Five often went to events together.”
Then there was the song “Dixie,” the rallying song at Duke’s sporting events.
“People went wild over that song,” said White, adding, “I never stood for Dixie at anytime, anywhere.”
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.