Duke Students and Workers in Solidarity
In the spring semester of 2016, I was one of the founding members of Duke Students and workers in Solidarity, a coalition of Duke undergraduate and graduate students, current and former employees, faculty, and Durham community members who protested the University’s labor conditions, especially the treatment of low-wage, contracted workers, and employees of color.
Hundreds rallied on the quad outside of the Allen Building, which had been deemed “A(bele)-Ville.” Inside, nine of us laid our sleeping bags in the administrative office for a week-long sit-in, while across the country people tweeted about #DismantleDukePlantation, #TakeOutTheTrask, and #FightFor15.
While at schools across the country, sit-ins in administrative offices have long been tactics of campus activists (like last spring’s anti-racist demonstrations at OSU, Clemson, and UC Davis, among others), this form of protest holds a particular place in the imagination of Duke Students for its associations with the Afro-American society’s 1969 Allen Building Takeover.
Mythic History of Campus Activism
As campus debate continues about DSWS, I’m reminded of the importance of the mythic history of campus events. In the early 2000’s, campus activist Eric Ludwig wrote about the erasure of workers, and specifically, coalitions of black women, from contemporary accounts of the events of the late 1960’s, including the Vigil of ’68 and Sit-In of ’69. He responded to portrayals of 1960’s activism as almost exclusively driven by Duke students by highlighting the stories of Hattie Williams, Viola Watson, Shirley Ramsay, and other black women leading Duke’s 1960’s labor struggles.
The past few years at Duke have seen similar acts of erasure. In 2013, the Allen-Building walls were lined with an exhibit honoring the Afro-American Society’s 1960 Allen-Building Takeover. All the while, President Brodhead’s administration repeatedly responded to violent acts of anti-black racism on campus by refusing any substantive policy change and instead creating ineffective, non-transparent “task-forces.” What’s more, while the University has continued to commemorate “student activism” in the late 1960’s, it is conspicuously silent about the role of labor organizing on campus, with little, if any, effort to uplift the narratives of the specifically anti-racist labor struggles, Duke’s history of women-, femme-, trans- and queer-led campaigns, or our university’s rich legacy of student and employee coalition building.
Preserving our History of Solidarity
This zine and accompanying collection of digitized primary documents introduce a new timeline of student and employee solidarity at Duke. Its title, (we know) (we’ve been here), is a reminder of the deep resilience and knowledge of those who have been forced to the margins by Duke generation after generation.
I should note that University Archives has hundreds of boxes with information on this topic that remain undigitized (and even unexplored). Even if they were all here, the archives of an institution like Duke has serious limitations in documenting the communities it has historically overlooked and exploited. I dedicate this work to all for whom Duke has ever been, or will ever be, a site of struggle against oppression, to the employees of Duke, and to my co-conspirators, accomplices, and chosen family in DSWS.
We see you, we love you.