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Learn more about how we got started and about the woman who was so influential in guiding our purpose and vision.
The Black presence in the Duke University undergraduate community began in 1963 and, although it would not be realized for two decades, the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture was born of that moment in history and bears its markings. Established in 1983, “The Lou” remains a safe, welcoming and supportive space that reflects the core values, culture, mission and perspectives of Duke’s Black community.
The Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture at Duke University was established with the expressed purposes of 1) preserving and enhancing Black culture at Duke University 2) promoting a better understanding and harmony among the races 3) providing a meeting facility for those with an interest in Black culture 4) promoting the recruitment of Black students to Duke University by providing a magnet area 5) motivating the student population and general public to increase their knowledge and understanding of Black culture; and 6) assisting Black students in maintaining their self-esteem by promoting cultural pride.
The Center was named to honor the great artist—Mary Lou Williams (b. Atlanta, GA, 8 May 1910; d. Durham, NC, 28 May, 1981). Williams taught at Duke University as an Artist-in-Residence from 1977 until her death. She is remembered by artists such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell as one whose musical and spiritual contributions were singular and profound.
Opening ceremonies for the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture occurred September 23rd-25th, 1983 with celebratory events alongside keynote speaker Toni Morrison. Founding director Edward Hill, with other campus leaders, emphasized the importance of its establishment 14 years after Black students first nurtured the idea during the Allen Building Takeover. The Center was initially relocated to the Oak Room in 2003 and hosted the renowned Dr. John Hope Franklin as the keynote speaker. In 2013, the Center was then relocated to the Flowers Building, where current Black Duke students and Black alumni now call it home.
The commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Allen Building Takeover was celebrated in 2019 with original protesters recognized on campus and a special exhibit in the Perkins Library entitled “Black Students Matter” Taking Over Allen in ’69. As part of this pivotal anniversary, the Center facilitated a conversation for the campus community to consider how student activism/students' demands called for and became the catalyst for institutional change. The essence of Black resistance and advancement is found in the organization of “The Lou” and the Black students, faculty, and alumni that allow it to continue to be a beacon of Black culture and keeper of Black history at Duke University.