PUBLISHED:April 16, 2012

The Pioneers: David Robinson II ’64 and Walter Johnson Jr. ’64 recall integrating Duke

Integrating Duke Law School did not involve a court order, a shouting governor, or an army of National Guardsmen. Instead it happened quietly, but no less forcefully, in 1961, through the recruiting of Dean Elvin “Jack” Latty and the willingness of two young men who would come to Durham that fall.

“Was I seeking integration? No,” says David Robinson II, who was preparing to graduate from Howard University in Washington D.C., in the spring of 1961. “In fact, my entire family was opposed to it. They were concerned for my safety.” But Robinson found Latty, who came to Howard looking for potential students, “a most persuasive, fatherly figure. He said ‘we’re gonna do this.’” In convincing Robinson to accept a scholarship, Latty, who served as dean from 1957 to 1966, also talked up Duke’s intellectual caliber. “He said, ‘Here’s an opportunity
to attend a small law school that is a true center for legal education.’ For me it was a no-brainer.”

It was slightly more complicated for North Carolina A&T senior Walter T. Johnson Jr., who had already made his post-graduation plans when he received a phone call from Latty. “I said, ‘Dean, you know I’ve already been offered a scholar- ship at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs.’” Johnson, an ROTC scholar who had committed to three years of active duty in the Air Force, explained to Latty that a hard-fought agreement had been reached that would specifically allow him to complete his studies at Columbia before entering the military. “[Latty] said, ‘Well, what if I could get that changed so that you can come to Duke instead?’ I knew he couldn’t get it changed. So I said, ‘If you can get it changed I’ll come.’ And I thought that was the end of it.”

It wasn’t. Latty got it changed, and a few months later, Johnson found himself on the Duke campus, along with Robinson and another student, R.L. Speaks, who was entering the Divinity School. They were the first African Americans to enroll at Duke, which would not integrate its undergraduate program until the fall of 1963; the Duke Law student government had pushed for and the faculty had supported its earlier integration.

“I felt very comfortable,” says Robinson, who roomed with a white divinity student during his first year at Duke and an African American minister pursuing a Duke PhD thereafter. “Classmates were congenial. They didn’t go out of their way, but I didn’t feel isolated.” He recalls Latty telling him about fielding an inquiry from the chair- man of the Duke Board of Trustees at a meeting. “The chair approached him and said, ‘I understand you have an African American student at the Law School.’ Dean Latty said, ‘You should come over to meet him. He’s a nice guy!’”

Johnson helped his own social cause by playing on the Law School intramural football team, a squad so impressive that after playing a game at the Wallace Wade Stadium, more than one official told the team that it “might have been the best foot- ball played on the field that year,” he notes.

People hold certain things sacred. If they know you have an open mind and will listen, it’s easier to work out a compromise that benefits everybody. I learned that at Duke."

— Walter Johnson '64

There were, of course, incidents. In Johnson’s third year, an executive visiting campus urged students to consider careers in business law, and then used a racial slur in telling them they could “make money” representing black clients. “It got real quiet in there,” Johnson recalls. “He meant it as a joke and he was expecting laughter. And he found out that the reason it got quiet is that I was sitting there in the corner. He didn’t see me. Later he came up to me to apologize and I said, ‘Don’t apologize, that’s the way you feel. And I know people just like you in my hometown.’”

But in the classroom, it was all about the business of learning law. “This was the early 1960s,” Robinson says. “Civil rights legislation was pending before Congress. Freedom Riders were traveling through the South. But at Duke, the law students were so busy studying, that there was not much in the way of controversial discussion. In that way, I suppose, I was protected by the very walls I integrated.”

Johnson recalls asking the renowned professor Brainerd Currie for a conference after doing poorly on a test. “‘Bring your notes,’ he said to me. And he sat with me that afternoon and taught me how to study. He helped me develop a process for understanding the law. He showed me how he did it, and he made it very simple.”

More challenging, perhaps, were prospects after graduation; Robinson and Johnson both knew that many large law firms remained segregated. Johnson did interview for a position at a major New York City firm during his third year. “The hiring manager looked me in the eye and said, ‘You have all of the credentials. But you have to realize we just hired our first Jewish associate last year.’”

Robinson bypassed the firm-interviewing process completely, opting instead for a position at the Federal Reserve, where he remained for three years. In 1967, he moved his family to Rochester, N.Y., to take a position at Xerox. Two years later, he found that a company survey indicating that black employees were happy with their positions and salaries had been fudged. Robinson helped organize the Concerned Association of Rochester, Inc., a nonprofit organization devoted to the elimination of discrimination at Xerox, and then served as its executive director. “We worked with management on what we called their ‘tokenism philosophy.’ They had hired a few black professionals here or there, but they were not doing what they should have been doing in terms of recruiting,” he explains.

Robinson, who worked for the Dade County court system in Miami after retiring from Xerox in 1988, notes that he graduated from Duke “able to talk toe to toe with top executives at a major corporation.” He also credits Xerox for listening. “I’m very proud of the fact that their CEO today is an African American woman.”

After fulfilling his Air Force service requirement, Johnson went on to become North Carolina’s first black assistant district attorney in the late 1960s before entering private practice. He also served as chairman of the Greensboro school system, playing a significant role in its continuing desegregation in the early 1970s. Johnson worked closely with Greensboro School Board attorney and fellow Duke Law alumnus William D. Caffrey ’58 to reach a successful compromise that ultimately led to complete integration.

“People hold certain things sacred,” says Johnson, who still lives in Greensboro. “If they know you have an open mind and will listen, it’s easier to work out a compromise that benefits everybody. I learned that at Duke, and it helped me provide whatever contributions I did provide in trying to make sure that we came out of it with a unified school district.”

It was, of course, the actions of the Law School dean that brought Johnson and Robinson to Durham to begin with.

“I learned my first lessons in power politics from Dean Latty,” says Johnson, “but he also had strong principles.” Robinson, who served on the Board of Visitors in the 1970s, remembers Latty as a man of morals and humanity, but also with a sense of humor. “I talked to him when I was at Xerox. He said to me, ‘Dave, I want you to know that you’ve contributed more to the Law School this year than Dick Nixon’ who was then the president. He was really something.”

— Paula Edelson