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Reuben-Cooke Fellows Honor Legacy of Groundbreaking Alum

Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke was one of the first African American students admitted to Duke in 1963. She went on to have a distinguished legal career as a lawyer and a law professor. In her personal and professional life, Reuben-Cooke exemplified resilience, leadership and the empowerment of historically excluded communities.

The Wilhelmina M. Reuben-Cooke Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Practices Project is a joint initiative among The Duke Endowment, Duke University in Durham and Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. Faculty members at both universities were invited to submit proposals related to issues of social justice, voting rights and/or the public histories of the campuses and their urban partners. Oral histories, digital storytelling and archival research were encouraged, with a focus on digital preservation of the projects and stories collected.

Reuben-Cooke Fellows receive grants of up to $10,000. Gunther Peck, associate professor of public policy and history at Duke, and Erin DiCesare, associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Johnson C. Smith, serve as project directors.

Here’s what the Duke-based faculty members have been doing.

2022-23 Reuben-Cooke Fellows at Duke

Faulkner Fox, Lecturing Fellow of English

Plays That Change the World

Duke professor Faulkner Fox and her students gather on the steps leading to Duke Chapel.

Fox led a project highlighting the work of Black playwrights and theater professionals across North Carolina. The grant allowed Fox to take her Spring 2023 students to plays featuring Black artists and playwrights across the state, and to bring theater professionals to her class for related discussions. She also hired theater studies major Anastacia Pogodina as a teaching assistant.

Fox’s students attended “Mlima’s Tale” by African American playwright and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, and interviewed J. Ra’Chel Fowler, lead actor in “Best of Enemies,” a play based on the life of Black activist Ann Atwater. The students also interacted with Tatiana Pless, actor and founder of Fourth Wall Theatre, a nonprofit that develops plays written by formerly incarcerated people.

The synergies between writing original plays while engaging theater practitioners was powerful for students and instructors. All students wrote full-length plays and showcased them in a public presentation in April 2023. Pogodina’s script about three generations of Russian women’s responses to the war against Ukraine received Duke’s Alex Cohen Award.

Fox also used the grant to support the development of her play about the legacy of the Confederacy in the contemporary American South, “Riding on Horses,” with staged readings at Duke and Catapult Theatre in New Orleans.

Christopher Sims, Associate Professor of the Practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy

Blue Mud: Experiences of Race in Alamance County

Duke professor Chris Sims' class gathers on an outdoor deck in the evening, under lights.

Sims led a project in collaboration with Jaki Shelton Green, North Carolina poet laureate and a native of nearby Alamance County.

In his course titled “Ethics and Equity in Media, Documentary and Technology,” Sims and 31 master’s students in public policy focused on Alamance County to explore historical and ethical questions at the heart of contemporary racial and class inequality.

The students created source material for the “Blue Mud” documentary project by interviewing Green and other Alamance residents, artists and community leaders who were struggling to determine whether Confederate monuments should remain in place and, if not, what to do with them. They also discussed broader issues of how to approach that period of history.

The resulting student-led podcast features Green and her story.

2023-24 Reuben-Cooke Fellows at Duke

This summer, the 2023-24 Fellows will share the results of their work with students during the past year.

Nia Johnson, Visiting Assistant Professor of Law

Public Health Neglect in Durham, North Carolina

Robin Kirk, Professor of the Practice of Cultural Anthropology

Mapping Maplewood: A Partnership With the Pauli Murray Center

Cecilia Márquez, Hunt Family Assistant Professor of History

Telling ‘Nuestra Historia:’ The Story of Duke’s Latinx History

Andrew Nurkin, Hart Associate Professor of the Practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy

Who’s in Charge at Duke University? Leading Duke in the 20th Century

Kerilyn Schewel, Lecturing Fellow in the Sanford School of Public Policy

Advancing Social Justice at Duke University

Christopher Sims, Associate Professor of the Practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy

Blue Mud: Experiences of Race in Alamance County [Continuation]

Looking Ahead

Two thematic areas have emerged as key points for future collaboration among Reuben-Cooke Fellows at both Duke and Johnson C. Smith: voting rights history and project-based research on student voting rights; and more expansive public histories within Durham and Charlotte.

Main image: Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, after she was elected May Queen at Duke