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Duke University Names Main Quad After African-American Architect

Julian Abele, Duke University, Race, Architect, Duke Quad
Courtesy of Duke University

Thousands of faculty, staff, students, alumni and family members walked across Duke University's West Campus over the weekend during Duke’s homecoming.

Just days ago, Duke's Main Quad was officially named in honor of the African-American architect who designed the buildings making up the quad.

The rain stopped just in time for the naming ceremony honoring Julian Abele. Duke President Richard Brodhead was as excited as anyone could be.

"I mean, I'm sorry, let's just acknowledge it, this is the most beautiful college campus in America," Brodhead said to loud applause.

Brodhead said many college campuses across the country started building and then just added, and added over time, kind of a "hodgepodge" of buildings.  But not Duke. More than 30 buildings and spaces, on the east and west campus, including Duke Chapel, were designed by Abele beginning in the 1920s.  It was at the start of Duke University's history, when blacks weren't allowed to attend or teach there.

"But when this campus opened there was no announcement that Julian Abele had been the designer of it.  There were not interviews in Architecture Today with Julian Abele. Right." said Brodhead. "He was the silent architect. He was in the closet as the architect of Duke University, if you could put it that way.”

Julian Abele, Duke University, Race, Architect
Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC
Julian Abele, Jr. greets students, like Justin Baez, takes pictures and signs autographs following the ceremony naming the main Duke quad after his late father.

Julian Abele, Jr. is 90-years-old and traveled to Durham for the dedication of the new, Abele Quad, named after his late father.

"He never talked about his work. Not only not to me, as far as I know, to very few people. He did not like to be in the limelight," Julian Abele, Jr. said.

Abele Jr. said his father was a renaissance man who loved University of Pennsylvania football games, going to the symphony on Fridays and designing Duke University.

"I'll give you a very simple answer and it sounds like I'm giving you the one that is right, but it's the one that I really feel: this was his finest work as far as I'm concerned," said Abele, Jr.

It's hard to confirm if Julian Abele ever got the chance to actually see what he had helped build in Durham, North Carolina, in the Jim Crow South. Abele was the first black student to graduate with a degree in architecture from Penn. He would eventually became the chief designer at the Philadelphia architectural firm of Horace Trumbauer.

Abele Jr. remembers visiting Duke for the first time in the 1970s.

"I had a camera bag on my shoulder and I went into the Chapel and the receptionist there said, 'Are you a photographer?' I said no. I said 'My father had something to do with the construction of this building.' She said 'You are Julian Abele Jr.' I almost fell through the floor. She knew my dad," said Julian Abele, Jr.

"Lift Every Voice and Sing" rang out from Duke Chapel as Friday's ceremony honoring Abele Quad wrapped up.

Jonathan Osei, a junior studying public policy at Duke, said it's bittersweet that the main quad will be named after Julian Abele. Osei said he would have liked to see a building named after Abele, like the student union.

"Naming a union 'Abele Union' would have meant a lot more and it would have been something that would have been tangible and you know for sure that everyone would have called it Abele Union," said Osei. "It wouldn't have been just union, it would have been Abele Union.”

It will likely take years, and years before the name 'Abele Quad' sticks, Osei said. Just look at how long it took for everyone to learn about the Black Philadelphia architect who designed the most beautiful college campus in America.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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