Duke's 'First Five' black students celebrate 50 years since integration

Posted January 24, 2013
Updated January 25, 2013

— The three surviving members of Duke University's so-called "First Five" were honored Thursday at a ceremony celebrating 50 years since they made history by blazing the trail for black students at Duke University.

Nathaniel White, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke and Gene Kendall were among the five black undergraduate students who integrated Duke in 1963. 

"It was a little bit of culture shock," White said about his first experiences on the predominantly white campus.

"It was a stepping stone that had to be planted," Kendall added. "Somebody had to do those things, and it was what I was supposed to do, and I went off to do it."

By breaking the color barrier at Duke, the First Five had a lot riding on them.

Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke Duke's 'First Five' celebrate 50 years since integration

"Our perception was that people would make decisions about a whole race of people based on how we performed and what we did," Reuben-Cooke said.

She said she's proud of the part she played in making Duke an inclusive place of learning.

"(I get excited) when I come back to Duke and see the diversity of the student body," she said. "African American students are such a central part of what this university is."

Cooke and White joined Mary Mitchell Harris as the first of the First Five to become Duke graduates in 1967. Kendall transferred to the University of Kansas after his sophomore year and Casandra Rush left Duke in her junior year.

According to Duke's website, more than a third of current undergraduate students are people of color.


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  • superman Jan 28, 2013

    Congratulations to all of them. They were fortunate that their parents were wealthy enough to break the barrier for them. It is very expensive to attend Duke and not many people can afford to go there. Growing up we lived in a house with no heat, no indoor plumbing and my mother cooked on a wood stove. We had an outdoor toilet and used a catalog. The boards on the floor were so far apart that you could see chickens walking under the house. So please dont tell me how difficult it was for you. We had to sleep in our clothes at night it was so cold. You ever sleep in a room with no heat all winter?

  • berle101 Jan 25, 2013

    Some of you really dont care or understand what it is to be black, we have came along way, not letting blacks eat in the same places as whites, not letting blacks use the same water, not letting blacks vote, whites have never had these issues, cause they where the ones putting those signs up, wearing white masks and hanging and killing people, you say it was along time ago, but it wasnt, blacks are still being treated as that BLACKS! maybe if the shoe was on the other foot you would understand maybe if you really dont no who your familiy is because we was raped by whites had babies and then taken away to never be seen again..

  • Terkel Jan 25, 2013

    Gravy Pig makes a point. When things don't go the way the NAACP wants them to, it's squarely and totally on the shoulders of whites. When things do, it's squarely and totally on the shoulders of blacks. Funny how power shifts like that.

  • GravyPig Jan 25, 2013

    "Good for them."

    Don't you mean good for all of us? Do you not celebrate victories in equality?

  • Relic Jan 25, 2013

    Noble accomplishments in a peaceful manner. They are rightly honored.

  • birkie74693 Jan 25, 2013

    llf says: "When we do not include all races, a lot of important education is lost."

    You are 100% correct, llf! Getting to KNOW others, working with them, going to school with them, talking with them, is VITAL to a healthy view of the world. It's the people who don't know others, who have no experience with them, who hate and fear people of various nationalities or religions. And hate and fear are toxic.

  • 426X3 Jan 25, 2013

    Good for them.

  • llf Jan 25, 2013


    Although we are all people of color. A school where only one color is allowed which was at the time "White" only needed to have some diversity and that is what this article is about. When you do not include all races a lot of important education is lost.

  • jcthai Jan 25, 2013

    raggy831, give it a break. You know what the phrase means. Don't like? Tough. You live in a world where that phrase has a meaning. Get used to it.

  • lavenderdejectedmoon Jan 25, 2013

    Heroes who paved the way for others. Beautiful story.