Category Archives: From Our Collections

Eleanor C. Pressly: A Duke Alumna at NASA

Post contributed by Val Gillispie, University Archivist.

With the 50th anniversary of the moon landing right around the corner, I’ve been researching Duke’s history with NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I’ve found a number of interesting stories, but I’ve been struck by the work of one Duke alumna whom I had not known about previously—and she’s a woman who deserves our recognition and thanks.

Eleanor C. Pressly, originally from the Charlotte area, received a master’s degree in mathematics at Duke in 1944. After working at Harvard, she served as an aeronautical research engineer at the United States Naval Research Library. She quickly became a specialist in rockets, particularly sounding rockets, which are unpiloted rockets that collect atmospheric data. Responsible for more than two dozen launches at the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico, she was thought to have been the first woman to fire a rocket.

Her work was highly technical and time-sensitive. A 1956 article syndicated by the Newspaper Enterprise Association described her at White Sands: “With one eye on an anemometer, the other on wind reports coming in from balloons and on a crew of computers, she keeps a constant watch six hours previous to firing.” She was responsible for ensuring that the angle of the launch was appropriately calibrated to the weather, and if anything were to go wrong when it was in the air, she would pull the switch that would cause the rocket to self-destruct. Despite her serious scientific bona fides, the reporter could not resist describing her appearance in the article, too, referring to “… this youthful looking woman who gives the appearance of a happy housewife set for a round of afternoon bridge. She has bright blue eyes, blonde hair, and an infectious laugh.”

A 1957 article in the Washington Post and Times Herald claimed she was called “Uncle Sam’s Blonde Rocketeer.” It also connected Pressly to future developments in the space program: “Later this year, if the earth satellite is launched as planned and the world applauds the first ‘man-made’ moon, remember that a woman had a finger in it too. Eleanor helped on the original research to determine how long the satellite could be expected to remain aloft.”

When the Goddard Space Flight Center opened in 1958, Pressley became the head of the Vehicles Section of the Spacecraft Integration and Sounding Rocket Division. She continued to make improvements to the sounding rockets, developing several models of Aerobee rockets, and collecting atmospheric data.

President John F. Kennedy with the recipients of the 1963 Federal Woman’s Award for outstanding contributions to government. Eleanor Pressly is second from the right. Photo from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
The recipients of the 1963 Federal Woman’s Award for outstanding contributions to government with President John F. Kennedy. Eleanor Pressly is second from the right. Photo from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

In 1963, Pressly was one of six women, selected from nearly 600,000 female federal workers, whose “high achievement, outstanding contributions, and influence on major programs” deserved special recognition. The award was presented by President John F. Kennedy at the White House. Duke President Deryl Hart sent a letter of congratulations, to which Pressly sent a handwritten note. “Of course it was exciting, personally, to win such an award. But my big hope is that more girls in schools such as Duke can be made aware of the tremendous opportunities open to them. We need them.”

Text of letter from J. Deryl Hart: "Dear Miss Pressly: In this morning's mail I received a letter from Mr. Mike Harloff, of the Office of Public Information, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, informing me that you are soon to receive a Federal Woman's Award for your pioneering work in the field of rocketry. I was pleased to have this information and wish to extend to you my sincere congratulations. You have brought distinction not only to yourself but to Duke University. More and more women are assuming roles of leadership in scientific endeavors and your accomplishments will serve as an incentive to others. My best wishes for your continued success and happiness. Sincerely yours, Deryl Hart"
Letter from Duke President J. Deryl Hart to Eleanor Pressly, April 22, 1963. From the J. Deryl Hart records. The text of this letter is readable in the image’s alt text.
Text of letter: "Dear President Hart, Thank you for your congratulatory letter of April 22. Of course it was exciting, personally, to win such an award. But my big hope is that more girls in schools such as Duke can be made aware of the tremendous opportunities open to them--We need them. Sincerely, Eleanor Pressly"
Letter from Eleanor Pressly to Duke President J. Deryl Hart, May 12, 1963. From the J. Deryl Hart records. The text of this letter is readable in the image’s alt text.

Pressly remained connected to Duke through giving, and even served as a class agent for the 1971-1972 Loyalty Fund. Pressly continued her work at Goddard, eventually retired from NASA, and she passed away in 2003. As we reflect on the fifty years since the moon landing, it is humbling to think about the massive amounts of research and testing that led to the fateful moonwalk—and the work that a woman educated at Duke contributed to that effort.

11 of My Favorite Haitian Creole Expressions from the Radio Haiti Archive

Post contributed by Laura Wagner, Ph.D., Radio Haiti Project Archivist

Processing the archive of Radio Haïti-Inter can be difficult work. The collection is filled with human rights violations, suffering, injustice, and death — including both the repression that the station’s journalists covered and the repression they personally endured. Yet despite the heaviness of the subject matter, listening to Radio Haiti is often joyful. Jean Dominique is the single most expressive person I have ever had the privilege of spending time with. (He was, in the words of his friend Jonathan Demme, “an absolute theater superstar waiting to happen.”)  In French, he’d quote Henri de Montherlant and La Rochefoucauld. In Haitian Creole, he’d draw on the language’s evocative proverbs and expressions. Creole is a language of poetry and double meanings, of metaphor and dissembling, of mawonaj.

As I head into my last week on the Radio Haiti project, I wanted to emphasize a lighter side of the project and share some wonderful Haitian Creole phrases. I’ve also learned some fantastic French terms over the course of this project (like scélérat – a villain! often paired with mediocre, because to Jean Dominique, mediocre was one of the worst things a person could be. Or histrion, a buffoon; scribouillard, a penpusher; or crêpage de chignons, a catfight!). But, as I said, in this list I’m going to concentrate on the Creole expressions that I’ve picked up along the way, not only from Jean Dominique, but also from Michèle Montas, J.J. Dominique, Konpè Filo, and other members of the Radio Haiti team, as well as some of the people they interviewed.

    1. Sòt pa touye w, men li fè w swè – Literally, stupidity won’t kill you, but it’ll make you sweat. My personal mantra every time I made a mistake while processing the Radio Haiti collection. It’s pretty much what it sounds like: stupidity isn’t fatal, but it creates a lot more work for you.
    2. Sezi kou berejèn – Very surprised; literally, surprised as an eggplant. I have no idea why.
    3. Depi djab te kaporal – Literally, “ever since the Devil was a corporal.” Figuratively, since the beginning of time. I’m told that’s because the Devil has been a general for a long time, so if he was a low-ranking officer, that must have been a very long time ago.
    4. Mare sòsis – Literally, to tie your sausage together with someone else’s. Figuratively, to be in cahoots with someone.
    5. M a di w sa Kasayòl te di bèf la – Literally, “I’m going to tell you what Cassagnol told the cow.” When you want to curse someone out without doing it directly. No one knows who Cassagnol was, or what he told the cow, but we can only imagine that it was very bad indeed.
    6. Pitit trannde dan – Literally, “a child with thirty-two teeth.” In a report from 1979 by Konpè Filo, sex workers from Port-au-Prince explained that they referred to their pimps as “children with thirty-two teeth” because they were all grown up but still depended on women for everything.
    7. Benyen san kache lonbrit – Literally, bathing without hiding your belly button. Letting it all hang out, not having any secrets.
    8. Panzou – Traditionally, a children’s game in which you slap someone’s hand, often to make them drop something. Panzou came to mean coup d’état, referring to the way the army seized power from Haiti’s democratically-elected government in 1991. The perpetrators of the coup, accordingly, were panzouyis (panzouists).
    9. Mete absè sou klou – Literally, putting an abcess on top of a boil. Figuratively, making a bad situation worse.
    10. Nou se lanmè, nou pa kenbe kras – A proverb, and of Radio Haiti’s slogans. Literally “We are like the sea, we wash away the dirt.” It means “we reveal the truth, we don’t keep secrets.”
    11. Nou pa manje lajan Chango, nou pa manje manje bliye – Literally, “we don’t consume Chango’s money, we don’t eat the food of forgetfulness.” Figuratively, “we’re not taking part in corruption and we never forget.” Chango is a Vodou lwa known for his anger. If you take Chango’s money, you have to be prepared to do something in exchange. The original expression is Lè w manje lajan Chango, fò w peye Chango (“When you use Chango’s money, you better pay Chango back.”)
    12. Degi – A small bonus, like a baker’s dozen. (This twelfth entry on a list of eleven is your degi!) I knew this word before, from every time I’ve bought rice or beans in a Haitian market, but I did not know that degi comes from the Fon language of West Africa, as Jean Dominique learned when he interviewed the ambassador from Benin, Patrice Houngavou, in 1978.

A Note from Rubenstein Staff: Laura, we will miss you! Thank you for your incredible and invaluable work on this massive and complicated project.  We are so lucky to have pote kole with you these past few years. Because of your hard work, expertise, and passion, the Radio Haiti Archive  is accessible to people all over the world. How amazing is that?! We wish you all the best and look forward to hearing about your future endeavors.

The processing of the Radio Haiti Archive and the Radio Haiti Archive digital collection were made possible through grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities

I Wander all Night in My Vision: Commemorating William Gedney and Walt Whitman

Post contributed by Paula Jeannet, Visual Materials Processing Archivist at the Rubenstein Library

“Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.

Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with
linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.”

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Section 4

June 23, 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of photographer William Gedney’s death in New York City in 1989 at the young age of 56.  Gedney’s career spanned a time of great changes in American society and elsewhere, and in his photographs he captures the vitality and promise of those decades as well as the counterweights of social isolation and poverty.  A lover of literature, he found early inspiration for his work in another New Yorker: Walt Whitman. Like Whitman, Gedney was fascinated by people in all their complexity and was an exceptional portraitist, using his camera rather than a pen; like Whitman, he was especially drawn to street life and crowds.  The full extent of Gedney’s preoccupation with Whitman can be more fully explored through the photographer’s archive; for now, this blog post will indicate some starting points in the collection.

Born in 1932, Gedney grew up in rural Greenville, New York, in the Hudson River Valley.  As a child, his family took him to visit relatives in the big city, and ultimately he studied art at Pratt Institute and moved into a cold-water flat in Brooklyn in the mid-1950s. While working as a commercial photographer to pay the bills and cover darkroom expenses, he roamed Brooklyn neighborhoods, his camera loaded with black-and-white film.  Many of the images capture daily life and the inhabitants of Myrtle Avenue, where he lived.  He continued this documentary work for the rest of his life.

Black and white photograph with elevated railway on Myrtle Ave in Brooklyn
Myrtle Avenue, May 5, 1969, 4:45 pm [taken from Gedney’s apartment window].  Print RL10032-P-1580-6682-08.   From this vantage point, Gedney also documented the demolition of the elevated railway soon after its closure in October 1969.  William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Black and white photograph of two boys
Caption: Brooklyn, 1955-1959. Print RL10032-P-B14-75-21. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Person with their arms out wide and head thrown back, perhaps smiling.
O’Rourke’s, January 9, 1960. Print RL10032-P-0057-0589-43. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

In 1966, William Gedney’s photographic life took flight: he traveled to Kentucky (twice), cross country to California (also twice), then across the ocean to Ireland, England, Paris (twice again), and India, also twice.  Brooklyn always drew him back.

Sometime around 1968 or 1969, perhaps inspired by Whitman’s interest in celebrating and documenting urban street life, he began a consuming project to uncover the history of Myrtle Avenue from its beginnings in the 18th century, using newspapers and literary sources, including the Brooklyn Eagle, for which Whitman served as editor, writing copious notes and pasting clippings in two volumes, Myrtle Avenue 1 and 2 – another habit he would continue throughout his life.  Some of his notes include transcripts of Whitman poems:

Two pages from Gedney's journal from 1969.
Myrtle Avenue, Book 1, pages 6-7. Transcription of Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” Leaves of Grass.

At some point (probably earlier than 1969), he discovered that Walt Whitman had lived in Brooklyn, on 99 Ryerson Street, just a few blocks from Gedney’s neighborhood on Myrtle Avenue.  While living at that address, Whitman published his ground-breaking epic poem Leaves of Grass in June 1855.

Although it’s not clear when the idea first came to him, in 1969 Gedney began to create the layout for a project to combine Whitman’s verses with his own photographs of New York City.  In one of his notebooks, titled only with the year 1969, he writes about “the bridge” photographs, and of framing them with Hart Crane’s poem “The Bridge.”

Black and white photograph of the Brooklyn bridge.
Brooklyn Bridge, circa 1959, Print RL10032-P-0008-0076-30. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

A few months later, in the same notebook, Gedney writes “I think the bridge pictures would be best paired with Whitman’s Brooklyn Ferry poem under the overall title ‘Brooklyn Crossing.’  His poem is the one I was most under the influence at the time.”  The Brooklyn Bridge book maquette in the Gedney archive contains no accompanying texts; however, during the recent Rubenstein project to rehouse and digitize the Gedney archive, the lead archivist came across this item hiding out in a box of oversize materials:

Stanza 2 of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in Gedney’s own hand. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Sometime around 1970, Gedney again turned to Whitman’s verses, this time selecting the poem “I wander all night in my vision” to introduce his planned book of night photographs taken in India.  Clearly Whitman was still on his mind and informing his work.

Man asleep on a ledge in an alley at night
Benares, India, 1969-1971. Print RL10032-P-BE121-0950-26. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Whitman quote of "I wander all nigh in my vision"
Layout page from planned photobook of night photography from Benares, India, circa 1980. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

I had thought Gedney’s connection to Whitman largely remained unexamined, with the exception of Margaret Sartor’s comments in her seminal book introducing Gedney and his archive to the world: What Was True: the Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney (W.W. Norton, 2000). Then, while researching this blog post, I discovered Mark Turner’s book, Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of NY and London (Reaktion Books: London, 2003), which in the context of the phenomenon of male cruising, discusses the remarkable parallels between Gedney and Whitman. The two clearly favored male liaisons, and this orientation was reflected to some degree in their poetic and artistic work.  Beginning in 1975, Gedney began extensively documenting the exuberant gay pride parades as well as street hustlers in San Francisco and New York, until a few years before his death.  At the same time, he was intensely private about his personal life, never fully coming out even to his closest friends.

“…as I pass, O Manhattan! your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love,
Offering me the response of my own–these repay me,
Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me.”

Walt Whitman, “Calamus 18”

Men sitting on the grass, one man with his head resting on the lap of another
June 25, 1978, New York City, gay march, Central Park. Print RL10032-P-1876-9617-07. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Man with unbuttoned shirt standing on street near strip club.
No known title, 1969. Proof print, contact sheet 1588. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Like William Gedney, Walt Whitman also celebrates an anniversary in 2019: he was born 200 years ago on May 31, 1819.  Many events have been planned in his honor:  http://waltwhitmaninitiative.org/

It’s easy to imagine that he would have been intrigued by Gedney’s photography and pleased at the idea of a publication of Brooklyn images prefaced by his own verses.

Sadly, it was not to be: Gedney bequeathed the world a body of compelling, eloquent photographic work, but his many book projects remained unpublished, with only the book maquettes in the archive as evidence of Gedney’s hopeful plans.  Perhaps with the right editor, these two artists will be joined again as Gedney had imagined.

“These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,
I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river,
The men and women I saw were all near to me,
Others the same—others who look back on me because I look’d forward to them,
(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)”

Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” stanza 4

No known title, circa 1968. Print RL10032-P-1537-6255-32. Tree in foreground, Walt Whitman’s tomb in background, Camden, New Jersey. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

 


Note about the Gedney Collection: Although William Gedney’s work was still largely undiscovered by mainstream audiences at the time of his death in 1989, it stood on the cusp of an awakening, thanks primarily to the efforts of close friends Maria and Lee Friedlander, and John Sarkowski, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art.  Eventually the entire Gedney archive — over 49,000 photographs, negatives, artwork, and papers – came to Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and is now being digitized in its entirety (the finished prints and contact sheets are already available online). You can learn more about the collection by visiting the collection guide online.

What Alumnae Remembered About Duke

Post contributed by Tracy Jackson, Head, Center Manuscript Processing Section and Technical Services Archivist for the Duke University Archives.

The Women’s Studies Program was founded in 1983, but women have been attending and graduating from Duke since the 1870s, and have been active as alums and supporters of the University. In the mid and late 1980s, as the Women’s Studies Program (WSP) was growing rapidly, they began to form a Friends of Women’s Studies group to help support the growth and evolution of the academic program.

In 1987, administrators in WSP created a survey focused on women’s experiences and sent it to the more than 16,000 women who had received undergraduate degrees from Duke since the 1920s. More than 700 responses came back. The first issue of the Women’s Studies Program Friends Newsletter published summary results of the survey in Spring of 1988. The piece in the newsletter breaks down the percentage of responses by decade of graduation, gives an overview of advanced degrees received and professions pursued, and includes information about involvement with alumni organizations, a major concern to WSP at the time. The following two issues of the Friends Newsletter give more in-depth profiles of the two women most commonly cited as role models by the survey respondents, Anne Scott and Juanita Kreps.

Article title “Many Alumnae Remember: A Survey Overview by Women’s Studies Staff”

Article title “Many Alumnae Remember: A Survey Overview by Women’s Studies Staff”
The Women’s Studies Program Friends Newsletter article on the survey results

The survey asks about a number of issues not covered in the Newsletter summary, however, and the answers are fascinating. The survey includes questions about what women experienced as women at Duke, about what they would want to discuss with then-current students, about what they saw as the most important events for women in the last 25 years, whether they’d ever heard of Women’s Studies, and what else they should have been asked.

The answers to these questions give us a glimpse of what women’s lives were like at Duke over the decades, but they also show what the respondents saw as mattering to women’s lives at the time. It’s important to realize the limitations of this trove of information: since Duke didn’t desegregate until 1965, this is what predominantly white, relatively affluent women thought in 1987 and 1988. From the perspective of 2019, 30 years later, it is very much of the moment of the late 1980s, yet has strong echoes of concerns women still struggle with now.

The responses on what were the most important issues to women in the last 25 years had a few common themes most often listed: birth control, both contraceptives as in the pill, and legalized abortion after Roe v. Wade, grouped together as well as listed separately; greater number of women in the workplace, sometimes listed in conjunction with concerns about equal pay, sometimes with concerns about the economic necessity of married women working (with some respondents questioning the necessity), and often in conjunction with concerns about the effect of working mothers on “the family”; civil rights; and greater visibility of women’s efforts to achieve equality, as in the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the women’s movement and feminism, and wondering if women can really have it all. Other concerns often listed include AIDS, drugs, and welfare, issues that would have been frequently and prominently discussed in the late 1980s. In my random sampling I didn’t find any mention of lesbian or queer issues, or of immigration or refugee concerns, and very little mention of the specific needs of women of color. But the focus on issues of equality, economic concerns, reproductive justice, and whether women can really get what they need in a complicated world – these all still ring so true for me today.

(Editor’s note: the text of these responses should be accessible as alt text via your screen reader. Please let us know if that’s not the case!)

Question 9: “In the last 25 years what would you list as the three issues that have effected the most change in women’s lives?” Answer: “1. The financial need (whether real or only perceived) for wives/mothers to contribute a second income – which usually means working outside the home. 2. Improved birth control and legalized abortion. 3. No-fault divorce.”
From a 1941 graduate.

 

Question 9: “In the last 25 years what would you list as the three issues that have effected the most change in women’s lives?” Answer: “The opportunities for a much larger percentage of women to be trained for the professions than women of my generation enjoyed. Reliable control of one’s reproductive capacity. Civil rights and equal opportunities legislation.”
From a 1942 graduate.

 

Question 9: “In the last 25 years what would you list as the three issues that have effected the most change in women’s lives?” Answer: “The Women’s Movement in general. The development of new birth control techniques. The AIDS problem. All of this has brought on such radical change in social mores.”
From a 1952 graduate.

 

Question 7: “If you were able to speak to Duke women on campus today, what would you like most to discuss with them?” Answer: “The pressures society places on women now to ‘have it all’: outstanding executive job, good marriage, and family life. People/women who have not ‘achieved’ notable recognition are not less valuable or less respected or less ‘successful’ than the achievers.”
From a 1967 graduate.

 

Question 9: “In the last 25 years what would you list as the three issues that have effected the most change in women’s lives?” Answer: “- the rights to choose birth control and abortion – the continuing fight for equal pay – the change in education (though slow) to try to avoid stereotyping of women’s and men’s roles”
From a 1978 graduate.

The long answers are my favorite, especially about the respondents’ memories of Duke. They’re anecdotal and can’t necessarily be used to draw larger conclusions, but in my brief review some patterns did emerge: there weren’t enough women faculty; everyone wanted more counselling, whether for future careers or life during and after college or handling alcohol; most people struggle to “have it all” and it’s important to address that.

Most of the memories of time at Duke are pleasant, recalling friendships still important in the lives of these women. There are, however, a number of vivid anecdotes of facing sexism from the administration or predominantly male faculty or from the career world outside of Duke. There are also reminisces of struggling to fit in, and struggling to find one’s place in the world or find appropriate role models. These, I think, are concerns still relevant today, even as we have far greater numbers of women in faculty and mentorship roles.

Question 5: “Thinking about your years as a woman at Duke, do any particular experiences stand out for you? What do you think you gained from these experiences? What might Duke have done better for you as a young woman?” Answer: “The only thing I can think of is that I received no counseling or advice concerning a means of making a living. I was a French major and was trained to do nothing on graduation.”
From a 1937 graduate.

 

Question 5: “Thinking about your years as a woman at Duke, do any particular experiences stand out for you? What do you think you gained from these experiences? What might Duke have done better for you as a young woman?” Answer: “One time I dropped a favorite little purse from Algers as I got out of a car coming back from a church young peoples meeting. It was at dorm closing time and I was not allowed to go out and hunt for it where I had gotten out of the car. Someone found it the next day or so squashed and dirty where cars had run over it. It did not seem fair – A fellow would have been allowed to go out and look for it. I was a girl. This just added fuel to the fire of dislike of discrimination. I fought it before and since. Rules should be reasonable and different circumstances considered fairly. Fairness I think is the essential ingredient (both ways) with education – also true caring.”
From a 1940 graduate.

 

Question 5: “Thinking about your years as a woman at Duke, do any particular experiences stand out for you? What do you think you gained from these experiences? What might Duke have done better for you as a young woman?” Answer: “I took a Naval History class and the professor humiliated the women into dropping. He was known to not like them – and I loved history. Spring of 53 American Airlines came to interview for stewardesses. Lined us up and 2 men walked around grading our bodies and looks. From both of these I learned men don’t really like women they just want to use them. Duke gave me a wonderful education I’ve only just come to appreciate the last ten years.” Question 6: “When you recall your years at Duke, do you remember any women who were important to you as role models? What do you remember?” Answer: “As I recall almost 100% of my professors were men. Only 3 teaching women I remember Psychology, Spanish, and Zoology. These were freshman courses. I must have taken 40-45 courses. So where were the women?”
From a 1953 graduate.

 

Question 5: “Thinking about your years as a woman at Duke, do any particular experiences stand out for you? What do you think you gained from these experiences? What might Duke have done better for you as a young woman?” Answer: “A Duke psychologist inadvertently launched my scientific career. In 1958, when I came to Duke as a freshman, I took a battery of career-counseling-type tests. When I met the assigned advisor for interpretation of my test results, he said, ‘You show approximately equal aptitude and interest in both science and music. BUT BECAUSE YOU ARE A WOMAN, you had better go into music, so you can have a career and a family.’ I was so angry at this analysis that I immediately left his office and signed up for a zoology major! I’ve been in science ever since.”
From a 1962 graduate.

 

Question 5: “Thinking about your years as a woman at Duke, do any particular experiences stand out for you? What do you think you gained from these experiences? What might Duke have done better for you as a young woman?” Answer: “I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at Duke just the way it was and I still do. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
From a different 1962 graduate.

 

Question 5: “Thinking about your years as a woman at Duke, do any particular experiences stand out for you? What do you think you gained from these experiences? What might Duke have done better for you as a young woman?” Answer: “I would have benefited from career guidance. I was a French major and never learned to speak the language! Also could have used alcohol education (not available anywhere at that time that I know of) – My father was alcoholic, and I am now aware of a pattern in my life to become involved with men who are emotionally unavailable.”
From yet a different 1962 graduate.

 

Question 5: “Thinking about your years as a woman at Duke, do any particular experiences stand out for you? What do you think you gained from these experiences? What might Duke have done better for you as a young woman?” Answer: “I was lucky to have lived in Epworth for two years where many strong-willed, energetic, creative women students served as role models and challenged me. (I was VP one semester and Pres. another.) They gave me courage. I dropped my math major my sophomore year – was told by my math prof. (a young-ish male – [name redacted]) that women usually don’t make it as mathematicians because they are not aggressive enough. By the end of my soph. year, there was only one other woman besides myself in my math class. I get angry every time I think about the chilling effect this prof. had on my – I sincerely hope that he’s no longer teaching at Duke.”
From a 1977 graduate.
These are just a small slice of these surveys. They show a group of women who all seem to be brilliant, capable people. Respondents listed long histories of community involvement, educational achievements, work lives with copious variety, parenting and dedication to families, overcoming disappointments and adversity, and deep interest in what effected women of the time, both Duke students and everyone else. There’s also more I wanted to explore related to discussions of divorce, the often negative perception of the “women’s movement” contrasted with stated support of some women’s issues within the same survey, the differences in reference to some issues between graduates of different decades, the implicit assumption that women WILL become wives and mothers, but there just isn’t space here. It would be interesting to see these experiences analyzed for other trends and patterns (if anyone needs a research project!), but it is also engrossing just to read about the lives of these women, every one of them complicated and compelling.

Question 7: “If you were able to speak to Duke women on campus today, what would you like most to discuss with them?” Answer: “Keep up the fight for the rights of women.”
A response from a 1933 graduate.

 

Curating the Self: The Dawn Langley Simmons Papers and Transgender History

Post contributed by Adrian Kane, doctoral candidate in History at the University of Washington

I travelled to the Rubenstein Library this winter, with generous support from the new Harry H. Harkins Jr. T’73 Research Grants, to conduct research for my dissertation “Narrating Sex: Transitional Bodies and ‘Expertise’ in the British Empire and Commonwealth, 1945-1970.” The Dawn Langley Simmons papers, a collection of correspondence and ephemera related to the English-born Charlestonian author, offer an unusually rich portrait of the life of a woman of transgender experience in the 1960s and 70s—one all the more valuable because Simmons played an active role in the archive’s construction.

Simmons, a prolific biographer in her own right, was keenly aware of the way textual evidence shapes memory. Her sequence of donations to Duke chronicle her 1968 transition and marriage to John-Paul Simmons—the first marriage between a white woman and Black man in South Carolina, she claimed—as well as her struggles with racist violence, housing instability and single-income working motherhood. Many of the documents bear Simmons’s marginal comments in colorful ink, explaining in-jokes or clarifying her relationship to the correspondent. Her 1975 diary, for example, closes with a list of “Points of Int.” written on the inside flyleaf, while the bland, newsy letters from her sister Fay assume a different tone in light of Simmons’s comment that Fay and her right-wing “Powellite” family refused to see her in person after her wedding.

Front endpapers of Dawn Langley Simmon's diary, showing handwritten notes by her on both sides
Front endpapers of Dawn Langley Simmons’s diary

What is largely absent from either the letters or the marginalia, however, is the suggestion that transition was a central part of her identity or a primary source of adversity in her life. Of all the letters she chose to donate only one expresses disapproval of her transition, and her friends in the United States and England alike seem to have readily adopted her new name and pronouns. This may, of course, reflect curation on her part. But even if there are deliberate gaps in the archival record, it is significant that Simmons chose to preserve vacation postcards and programs from her daughter’s Christmas pageants rather than accounts of her changing body or any hostility she endured because of it. Even today, after all, trans people are expected to recount feelings of gender-based misery in order to access basic healthcare and legal support, and, as an historian, I had assumed that the pressure to reproduce the “correct” narrative would have been still greater in the early days of the Johns Hopkins gender identity clinic. Yet Simmons seems to have taken active steps to ensure that no future biographer could reduce her life to a simplistic tale of suffering and its surgical redemption. She was a writer, a mother, a lover of antiques and old houses, a bon vivant, a restless soul with one foot planted on either side of the Atlantic—all of these aspects of her identity come to the fore in the Dawn Langley Simmons papers, and serve as a reminder that published or institutional records of transition cannot fully represent the way mid-twentieth century trans people understood themselves.

Happy 200th Birthday, Walt!

Post contributed by Kate Collins, Research Services Librarian

Today marks the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth.  Whitman did “celebrate myself” and perhaps you want to celebrate him too. What could you get America’s Bard? Based on our extensive collection of Whitman’s Papers we’ve got a couple of gift ideas we think the Good Gray Poet would have appreciated.

Slouch Hat

Samuel Hollyer engraving of a daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison,  frontispiece of 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.

A wide-brimmed hat at a jaunty angle was part of Whitman’s signature look, starting with the portrait of him included in the first edition of Leaves of Grass. His hat even made it in to later editions of Leaves of Grass, where he wrote, “I wear my hat as I please, indoors or out.”

Gift Certificate for a Phrenological Reading

“Phrenological Description of W. (Age 29 Occupation Printer) Whitman by L. N. Fowler N,” 1849, Volume 148, Walt Whitman Papers. Rubenstein Library.

While phrenology is now regarded as pseudoscience, in the nineteenth century Whitman and many others believed that the elements of a person’s character were located in specific parts of the brain that manifested as bumps on one’s skull, which a skilled reader could interpret. In 1849, Whitman had a phrenological reading conducted by Lorenzo Fowler, one of the leading proponents of phrenology in America. Fowler noted, among other things, “You are no hypocrite but are plain spoken and are what you appear to be at all times. You are in fact most too open at times and have not always enough restraint in speech.”

Notebook

Lists of Various Parts of the Body,  verso, circa 1856. Volume 13, Walt Whitman Papers. Rubenstein Library.

Whitman wrote in 1881, “Wherever I go yet, winter or summer, city or down in the country, or alone at home, or traveling, I must take notes,” and throughout his career as a writer he used any scrap of paper he had at hand to jot down his thoughts. Our collection include ideas for poems, notes on reading material, and drafts for stories, sometimes even on the same loose piece of paper.  Whitman definitely doesn’t seem like the bullet journaling type, but maybe a nice Moleskine notebook could keep his notes together in a slightly more orderly manner?

Photo shoot

W. Curtis Taylor, “Whitman with Butterfly,” 1883, photograph, published in Specimen Days, 1882.

Whitman was the most photographed poet of his time, and sat for portraits with noted photographers such as Mathew Brady, as well as many others. Whitman came of age with the developing technology and art of photography, and used it throughout his life as a way to explore different ways of representing himself.

Throw a Party

From program and menu for Walt Whitman’s Seventieth Birthday, May 31, 1889. Shelved with Horace L. Traubel (ed.) “Camden’s compliment to Walt Whitman, May 31, 1889; notes, addresses, letters, telegrams,” Philadelphia: D. McKay, 1889.

Think a physical gift is not enough and want to throw Whitman a birthday bash but wondering what should you serve? Perhaps the menu from  a party held in honor of Whitman’s seventieth birthday can provide some inspiration. “The Feast of Reason” featured clams, fish, lamb, beef, as well as strawberries with cream and ice cream for dessert. 

New Discoveries in the Robert A. Hill Collection: Rev. Claudius Henry and The International Peacemakers

Post contributed by Meggan Cashwell, Technical Service Intern

I recently processed the latest accession to the Robert A. Hill Collection: The Jamaica Series. The series consists primarily of Professor Hill’s research on the Rastafari Movement and Rev. Claudius Henry. While evaluating the materials I came across several particularly fascinating items, including the “Rev. Henry Picture Album.” As I carefully examined each image, the history of Rev. Henry and his followers unfolded.

Emperor Haile Selassie
Emperor Haile Selassie

Professor Hill shared his extensive knowledge of Rev. Henry in an interview for Reggae Vibes. He was wrapping up a research trip in Jamaica in 2010 when he decided to spend part of the remainder of his time meeting with members of Rev. Henry’s International Peacemakers Association at Green Bottom, Clarendon. The elders welcomed him to “Bethel,” a facility Henry and the Peacemakers constructed decades earlier, and they shared about their relationship to the movement.

Rev. Henry (1903-1986) considered himself a prophet after experiencing a vision at age eighteen. He began preaching, eventually moving to Cuba and then America before returning to Jamaica in the 1950s to fulfill his revelation. Rev. Henry accumulated thousands of followers, and in 1959 built The African Reform Church of God in Christ. Professor Hill claims that Rev. Henry’s following constituted the largest Back-to-Africa Movement of its time. Rev. Henry traveled to Ethiopia more than once to meet with officials affiliated with Emperor Haile Selassie, considered by many Rastafarians to be the messiah (image one). Their ambitions to relocate were never realized. In 1960 Rev. Henry and fifteen others were arrested on grounds that they were plotting an insurrection against the Jamaican government. At their trial in 1960, which Professor Hill attended when he was 16, they were found guilty.

 

International Peacemakers making bread at their compound
Peacemakers making baking bread

In 1966 Rev. Henry was released from prison and went back to his followers in the parish of Clarendon. There in Green Bottom, Rev. Henry and others built a commune called the International Peacemakers Association. The Peacemakers were self-sustaining. The pictures displayed in the album show the Peacemakers making tiles, gardening, farming, ranching, baking bread, and performing a host of other duties (images two and three). There was also a school, baptismal house, community center, and worship facility, among other structures (image four).

The picture album is a part of a separate subseries which also contains loose and mounted photographs, correspondence, receipts pertaining to the construction of the commune, programs, posters, and other materials. Collectively, they offer a rich history to researchers, and encourage scholars to ask new questions about the Rev. Henry, the Peacemakers, and their legacy.

Sources:

“Rev. Henry Picture Album,” Robert A. Hill Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

“Rev. Claudius V. Henry and the Radicalization of the Rastafari Movement in Jamaica, 1957-1960,” Interview with Professor Robert A. Hill by Boris Lutanie, Reggae Vibes, Paris, France.

Alexus Bazen, “Ethnography of the International Peacemakers Association,” https://www.curf.upenn.edu/content/bazen-alexus-ethnography-international-peacemakers-association.

Add it Up: Duke and the Putnam Mathematics Competition

Post contributed by Hillary Gatlin, Records Manager

The inside front cover of the Putnam scrapbook. The right-hand page reads "Duke 1993 Putnam Champs in blue capital letters.
William Lowell Putnam scrapbook, inside front cover

The University Archives works with offices across campus to collect and preserve university history. As part of these efforts, the William Lowell Putnam Competition scrapbook, previously on display in the Department of Mathematics, has now made its way to the University Archives for preservation.

The scrapbook describes Duke undergraduates’ participation in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition. The Putnam, which began in 1938 as a competition between college and university mathematics departments, is now the premier mathematics competition for undergraduate students. In fact, it has been repeatedly described as the “NCAA tournament” of the math world. Taking place each December, undergraduates attempt to solve challenging mathematical problems over a six hour period. This is both an individual and team competition, with prizes awarded to students with the highest scores as well as to the five institutions with the highest rankings.

This scrapbook contains press releases, correspondence, programs, and photographs related to the Department of Mathematics’ participation in the Putnam Competition. In 1993, Duke University won its first Putnam, with the team of senior Jeffrey Vanderkam, junior Craig Gentry, and freshman Andrew Dittmer taking first place. Harvard University had taken the top honors for the previous eight years. While the scrapbook focuses primarily on Duke’s first victory in 1993, it also includes some material from later years, including a photograph of Duke’s second winning team in 1996, and a copy of a Board of Trustees announcement honoring five mathematics students in 2000, when the Duke University team again took first place in the Putnam.

A scrapbook page with two photos relating to the 1993 Putnam competition team. The top photo shows a display in the mathematics department about the competition. The bottom photo shows the winning team of three students and a faculty member.
Photos of the Putnam Competition team from 1993

Duke University students compete in both athletics and academics. Now the victories of these undergraduates will be preserved and shared with the larger campus community as part of the University Archives.

The William Lowell Putnam Competition scrapbook was created by Dr. David Kraines, Associate Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, who leads many of the Putnam competition teams. It was transferred to the University Archives by the Department of Mathematics in April 2019.

SLGs Have Their Roots in Woman’s College Experiment

Post contributed by Gia Cummings, University Archives student assistant

Among Duke’s countless unexplainable quirks are sleeping outside for a basketball game, the first-year meal plan, anything to do with the transportation system, and most mysteriously, Selective Living GroupsProspective students are puzzled by the concept, and Duke students stammer to conjure an explanation: it functions similar to Greek life but it’s certainly not that; it’s not a club but it’s also not a friend group; you live together, but it extends beyond that—and all of these responses leave you equally as confused. Eventually, as one transitions from wide-eyed first year to aloof sophomore, the questions fall away and the social landscape becomes comprehensible. And yet, the underlying question: ‘what is an SLG?’ slips away unanswered.

Although the definition of a Selective Living Group is concrete now, it began as a nebulous idea pioneered by some innovative students of the Woman’s College, women who wanted to extend their learning into their living space. In 1961, the Women’s Student Government Association (WSGA) Council defined the reasoning for the living situation in their “Proposal for an Experimental Dormitory”:

From the “Proposal for an Experimental Dormitory,” 1961. Woman’s College Records, box 35.

This logic parallels modern-day defense of the selected living group system, wherein living with people of diverse backgrounds and thought processes is a learning experience in and of itself. The women of the Experimental Dorm, which was housed in the Faculty Apartments (Wilson Residential Hall) beginning in the fall of 1961, had varying academic talents and interests: they organized themselves with the intentions of pursuing academic stimulation, learning for the sake of learning rather than learning for a course. The women read common books to expand their knowledge, but they also extended the experimental aspect past their studies.

Color photo of the front of Wilson Residence Hall. The three-story brick building is Georgian in style.
Wilson Residence Hall. The Experimental Dorm was housed on Wilson’s 3rd floor.

At that time, students of the Woman’s College had strict curfews and restrictions regarding their social lives and freedom, and the women of the Experimental Dorm took on an unprecedented level of self-governance. They requested self-monitoring on the tracking of their movements, along with control over the rules in their own house, and adopted a government-like structure that resembles the House Councils that each dorm currently has, with assistance from older (male) faculty members. The members organized a flexible leadership system that included rotating chairmanship and standing committees to address particular issues–including monetary ones, given that the members paid dues to be a part of this community. In this sense, and the selection process, the Experimental Dorm distinguished itself from the residential Corridors that would soon follow.

Typewritten page describing the government and organization of the Experimental Dorm.
Page from “Structures and Functions of the 1961-62 Experimental Dorm.” Woman’s College Records, box 35.

Although the vision of the Experimental Dorm prioritized “intellectual orientation”, they were intentional in not pursuing a specific academic community (like the later Corridors); in fact, the girls aimed to acquire a diverse group of interests in order to promote mental stimulation. As was recognized by these women, learning stems from exposure to new concepts and ideas; they aimed to choose members that stimulate one another. This aspect was evident in the fact that the Experimental Dorm took applications followed by interviews, attempting to select candidates who reflected a passion for learning. As the women outlined in their selection guidelines, their criteria specifically stated that they did “not want grade point averages or other specific records to be used in judging the girls” and that “each choice would be made on an individual basis,” with diverse interests being of particular importance. This dorm set itself apart by incorporating a social aspect along with an academic one: the Experimental Dorm was designed to create a community, not just a study group. In this sense, the ancestry of modern SLGs is clear, the creation of a group that shares similar values beyond their academic interests, designed to grow its members as people as well as students. 

Selective Living Groups today are often praised for their ability to bring people together; to create a learning environment in the dormitory alongside the classroom. The origins of those aims can be traced directly to the goals of the women who began the Experimental Dorm: a project which began to create a community, but whose effects have grown to become an important aspect of student life at Duke to this day.

New Acquisition Spotlight: The William T. Blackwell Family Papers

Post contributed by Meghan Lyon, Head of General Manuscript Processing at the Rubenstein Library

One of the Rubenstein Library’s older collections, the William T. Blackwell Papers, has recently grown thanks to a generous gift of 19th and 20th century papers and photographs from the Martin family, descendants of the Blackwell family. Before this latest addition, the William T. Blackwell Papers consisted almost exclusively of financial ledgers documenting the dramatic failure of the Bank of Durham, which opened in 1883, extended credit too liberally, and subsequently closed in 1889. This new addition has earlier material, documenting the rise of Blackwell’s fortune during the 1870s, as he and business partners James R. Day and Julian Shakespeare Carr built their factory, manufacturing and selling smoking tobacco through the W.T. Blackwell and Co Tobacco Company. The addition includes a notable cache of letters from Carr (yes, that Carr), documenting his and Blackwell’s partnership and their legal strategies during the Bull Durham trademark litigation through the 1870s.

These new records with the details of the W.T. Blackwell and Co. business operations would be exciting enough, but the rest of the addition is fascinating too. In fact, the nature of the collection has changed so significantly that we have opted to rename the collection to be the William T. Blackwell Family Papers. This better reflects the range of the materials now held – in addition to William T. Blackwell’s business materials, there is now correspondence, receipts, invoices, and other documentation of the daily life of the Blackwells, both W. T. and Emma Exum Blackwell, whom he married in 1877.  W.T. Blackwell’s sister, Lavinia Blackwell, later married J.D. Pridgen, who owned a shoe company in Durham and whose daughters attended Durham High School in the early 1900s. Their scrapbooks, which include snapshots and printed ephemera from their social activities and education in local Durham schools, have amusing, endearing captions. Mary Blackwell Pridgen, one of the daughters, kept scrapbooking as an adult, and her later marriage to Chester B. Martin explains the inclusion of Martin family materials in this collection as well. In 1927, Chester B. Martin co-founded and operated Durham Dairy Products, Inc., which was Durham’s first milk delivery service. Materials from Durham Dairy include a nearly-complete run of company newsletters – Durham Dairy Doings – with great hand-drawn cartoons, profiles of staff and workers, local Durham news, and insights into the company’s marketing and delivery of milk. The multi-generational aspect of this collection has been challenging but fun to sort out – especially since it is all Durham history, and not just about tobacco (or banks!) anymore.

Following are images of some of my favorite items from the collection. See the newly published collection guide to explore further.

Children in cart pulled by two goats.
An original (but damaged) mounted photograph of the William T. and Emma Blackwell home, once located at Chapel Hill and Duke Streets, Durham. This is now the site of the Duke Memorial United Methodist Church. There is additional information about this site on OpenDurham.org.

 

Smoking farm animals
An empty 19th century Durham tobacco pouch, featuring smoking animals.

 

Envelope with engraving of warehouse
W.T. Blackwell & Co. had amazing stationary. This is the back of one of the company’s envelopes.

 

Colorful letterhead with cow
More W.T. Blackwell & Company letterhead can be seen on this statement where William T. Blackwell formally apologizes for offending Mr. C.B. Green during the Raleigh State Fair in 1872.

 

Three black and white photos of three women.

Ticket to 1920 state fair
Two pages from Mary Blackwell Pridgen’s scrapbook; one includes a ticket to the 1920 Raleigh Fair, which was hopefully less scandalous than the 1872 Fair.

 

Man leaning on log with two possums.
An (unfortunately) uncaptioned loose snapshot of a man and two possums.

 

Cats wearing tiny gloves in a ring boxing.
A scrapbook page from Mrs. C. B. Martin, dating from the 1960s, with an article about boxing cats.

 

Cartoon of anthropomorphized cows.
A cover from a 1946 issue of Durham Dairy Doings, published by Durham Dairy Products, Inc. These serials are being cataloged separately as a new title in Rubenstein Library.