Education

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

Posted January 24, 2013 11:13 p.m. EST
Updated January 25, 2013 7:26 a.m. EST

— 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.

"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.