A Workforce Evolves

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A Workforce Evolves

Tremendous growth and fight for change mark early decades

Soon after Duke University's 1924 creation, administrators began receiving a steady flow of letters from people seeking work at the expanding institution.

Effie Kendrick of Nashville, Tennessee, inquired about housekeeping jobs. She even included a photo of herself. Edwin Warner of Charlottesville, Virginia, asked if Duke needed a landscape architect. Raleigh's Loetitia Steele sought a clerk position.

“In view of the great expansion of your university, it occurs to me that you may have some opening left unfilled in your administrative staff; for which you might possibly entertain my application,” wrote New York's Reginald Robbins in 1925.

Duke University, then housed in 16 buildings on what is now East Campus, mostly existed in future tense. Over the next few decades, Duke's workforce would grow from 155 faculty and academic staff in 1925 to a non-academic workforce of 6,000 people by the 1960s, when employees used their collective voice to push for positive change.

In 1924, Effie Kendrick, above, sent a letter and photo to Duke, inquiring about jobs. Atop the page, a payroll log from September 1927 shows names, hours and wages of employees who built and maintained Duke's campus. Images: Duke University Archives.
In a 1925 release to newspapers, Duke Vice President Robert Lee Flowers wrote that “men of outstanding ability are being added to the faculty and staff of Duke University as rapidly as they can be obtained.”

From 1925 to 1935, as total student enrollment grew from 1,396 to 4,318, the number of full-time faculty went from 152 to 353. During that period, full-time staff remained relatively small as students handled many campus dining and clerical jobs, and faculty held most administrative positions.

Payroll logs from the late 1920s – when Duke's West Campus was being built – showed jobs such as blacksmiths and stone masons. Logs referred to “laborers” who handled tasks such as “hauling cinders,” “burning rubbish” and “unstopping drains.” After World War II, as undergraduate enrollment jumped and campus needs grew more sophisticated, the workforce adjusted.
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Employees of the Duke University Typing Bureau copy documents in 1937.
Photo: Duke University Archives.
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Ted Minah, left, with banquet manager Bill Jones, right, serving as a close collaborator.
Photo: Duke University Archives.
In 1946, Ted Minah was hired as the director of Duke's dining halls and the West Campus coffee shop. These establishments had faced criticism due to the challenges of wartime rationing and a lack of properly trained staff. In response, Minah championed increased wages and advancement prospects for non-student employees. He implemented an on-the-job training initiative, enabling cooks and supervisors to pursue culinary arts and hospitality management education at institutions in Connecticut, Michigan, and New York.

By the end of Minah's 28-year tenure in 1974, Duke's dining facilities served roughly 15,000 meals per day at 12 locations, and dining staff had a turnover rate below 5%. He had also served as a food consultant for many universities and colleges.

“We were the first college in the country to offer selective menus to boarding students and among the first to have a free flow system in the cafeterias,” Minah told the Durham Morning Herald in 1975. “We made a huge self-service snack bar. We were the first to have a credit system throughout the dining halls where students could pick up meal tickets and have the bills sent home monthly.”
Meanwhile, during the 1950s and 1960s, Duke's faculty nearly doubled in size, contributing to growth in clerical staff. In 1958, the university employed 166 typists and stenographers. And as technology advanced, there were five separate job categories for employees working with computers and three levels of electron microscope technicians by the late 1960s.

In 1966, Samuel DuBois Cook joined the faculty of Duke’s Department of Political Science, becoming the first Black regular or tenured faculty member at a predominantly white southern college or university. Cook was a leading scholar in the study of race, ethnicity and social equity and served as a mentor to many Duke students.

However, wage disparities between academic and non-academic employees at Duke continued into the 1960s.

J. Oliver Harvey, a janitor and later a supervisor, played a pivotal role in initiating change on campus in the 1960s. He was instrumental in the launch of today's Local 77 union for service employees, which led to improvements in workers' pay and benefits. In April 1968, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. served as a catalyst for the "Silent Vigil," a peaceful campus demonstration organized by students. The event paid tribute to Dr. King and showed support for the university's food service, housekeeping, and other non-academic employees who engaged in a 13-day work stoppage.

Samuel DuBois Cook joined Duke in 1966. He was the first African American to hold a regular and/or tenured faculty appointment at a predominantly white southern college or university. Photo: Duke University Archives.
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Participants in the 1969 Silent Vigil hold signs in support of Local 77, Duke's non-academic employee union.
Photo: Duke University Archives.
By the fall of 1968, an “Employees' Council” had formed with Harvey serving as a co-chair with delegates from technical, service, clerical, and maintenance units. They collaborated with administrators on concerns and policies. Their work led to changes in 1969 that included raising the minimum wage; increasing maternity leave, holidays and vacation time; expanding hospitalization insurance; and committing to preventing and eliminating discrimination regarding “race, color, sex, religion, or national origin.”

“If we can accomplish as much in 1970 as we have in 1969, we believe that 1970 will be the year that nonacademic employees of Duke can truly say from their hearts, ‘We the people,'” said Harvey, according to a Duke brochure titled, 1969 Duke Employees' Year of Change.
In a 1998 interview with Duke Magazine, Duke family member Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, a Duke University alum and trustee, recalled the Silent Vigil, calling it “a crossroads in Duke's life.”

She said that early on, Duke could attract employees with its status as a new and promising institution. But to continue moving forward, she added, it must take better care of its entire workforce. This realization, she said, gave Duke “a new maturity” and “a new respect for non-academic employees.”
This story is part of Working@Duke's celebration of Duke's Centennial year. Working@Duke is highlighting historical workforce issues and showcasing employees in a special series through 2024.
Reported and Written by Working@Duke Staff.

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