Ted Segal had a feeling nostalgic five years ago when he opened a dust-covered box containing his unfinished master’s thesis on black student activism at Duke University.
“It was a time capsule of that moment in my life,” says Segal, 66, of the typed pages and tapes in the bankers box for nearly 40 years. “Thinking about the path my life had taken, other paths my life hadn’t taken, was just powerful.”
In 1979, Segal decided not to become a historian and left Duke University. He intended to complete his thesis, but “life unfolded,” he says. He received his law degree from Georgetown University and eventually became a partner at DLA Piper in Washington, DC.
He retrieved the box containing his oral history project from the basement of his Bethesda home, planning to give the contents to Duke as he prepared for the 50th anniversary of the protests on campus after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Reading the material, Segal, who grew up in Bethesda, was immersed in the history of student activism and didn’t want to let go.
He reached out to his former history teacher, Bill Chafe, who shared Segal’s enthusiasm for revisiting the subject and offered to help. Eager to dive back into it, Segal, then aged 60, decided to retire. He got involved in his research and five years later his dormant thesis had turned into a book: Point of Reckoning: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University, published in February by Duke University Press.
To complete the narrative, Segal has traveled to Durham, North Carolina more than a dozen times to dig through the Duke University archives and re-interview some of the former students who live in the area. He had access to documents that had been restricted decades earlier, which allowed him to gain new insight into the actions of directors.
In his book, Segal chronicles the struggles of the first black undergraduate students who enrolled in 1963 after the historically white university was forced to disintegrate. They organized themselves after facing racist symbols, intimidation and exclusionary policies that included the university’s use of a nearby country club that refused to admit black members. In the final chapters of the book, Segal discusses the 1969 takeover of a campus administration building by the college’s African-American corporation and a riot with police that followed.
With two grown children, Segal realized how young the student protesters were and the apprehension their parents must have felt during such a volatile time. “This insight allowed me to approach their stories in a much more human and empathetic way,” he says.
Segal recounts how the white men in power at Duke made little effort to understand the lived experience of black students and believed that they would essentially have to “go white” to fit in. He recalls that a similar attitude was ubiquitous later in the legal profession. . Although Segal believed he “ticked all the boxes” as a progressive person by serving on his firm’s diversity committees and on the board of a pro bono legal center during his career, he says he did. ‘he came to reassess his own thinking on racial issues during his career. research.
“It became a journey of discovery for me,” says Segal, who worked full-time on the project in his home study. “I was able, for the first time, to begin to understand and unbox my privilege and my blind spots. It was an extremely personal and powerful experience.
Chafe edited every chapter of the book, as did Segal’s wife Joyce Wasserstein, 66, a retired psychologist. “Her book has become a part of our family,” she says.
Segal has made the digital version of his book available for free download through Duke University Press and says he is eager to share the lessons that can be learned from college failures. “The problem was not overtly racist,” Segal says. “What blocked progress was everyone who saw themselves as being in favor of these issues, but [who] were unwilling to sacrifice capital to achieve these goals.
He says the continued calls for racial understanding and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement show how much work remains to be done to achieve racial justice. “What it will take for institutions to change is to see diversity and inclusion as a core value, not just in word, but in deed,” he says.
University archivist Valerie Gillispie says Segal’s book is timely as Duke recently embarked on a new anti-racism pledge following the death of George Floyd in May 2020 at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. “I am so impressed with what he did,” she said. “The book is a great educational tool. It tells a part of Duke’s story that has not been scholarly examined in a monograph.
Upon completion of his project, Segal processes what he has learned and envisions more direct involvement in racial equity issues. “Whatever I end up doing, I now understand that serving on the nonprofit board of directors and donating to nonprofit entities is not enough if you want to pretend that you are seriously committed … to racial justice, ”he said.