September-October 2021

Unfinished business

A Bethesda attorney finds the past becomes the present in his book on 1960s racial strife

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Photo by Louis Tinsley

Ted Segal had a sense of nostalgia 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 this moment in my life,” says Segal, 66, of the typewritten pages and cassette tapes in the bankers box for nearly 40 years. “Thinking about the path my life had taken, other paths my life had not taken, was just potent.”
In 1979, Segal decided against becoming a historian and left graduate school at Duke. He intended to finish his thesis, but “life unfolded,” he says. He earned his law degree from Georgetown University and eventually became a partner at DLA Piper in Washington, D.C.

He retrieved the box containing his oral history project from the basement of his Bethesda home, planning to donate the contents to Duke as it prepared for the 50th anniversary of campus protests following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Reading through the material, Segal, who grew up in Bethesda, was drawn back into the story of the students’ activism and didn’t want to let it go.

He got in touch with his former history professor, Bill Chafe, who shared Segal’s enthusiasm for revisiting the topic and offered to help. Eager to dive back in, Segal, then 60, decided to retire. He poured himself into his research, and five years later his dormant thesis had morphed 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 drove to Durham, North Carolina, more than a dozen times to dig through the Duke University Archives and reinterview some of the former students who live in the area. He had access to documents that had been restricted decades earlier, allowing him to gain new insights into administrators’ actions.

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 desegregate. They organized after confronting 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 book’s final chapters, Segal writes about the 1969 takeover of a campus administration building by the university’s Afro-American Society and a subsequent riot with police.

With two grown children of his own, Segal came to realize how young the student protesters were and the trepidation their parents must have felt during such a volatile time. “That insight allowed me to approach their stories in a much more human and empathetic way,” he says.

Segal reports on how the white men in power at Duke made little effort to understand the lived experience of Black students and believed they should essentially “come and be white” to fit in. He recalls that a similar attitude was pervasive later in the legal profession. Although Segal thought he was “checking all the boxes” as a progressive person by serving on diversity committees at his firm and the board of a pro bono law center during his career, he says he came to reevaluate his own thinking on racial issues during his 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 unpack my privilege and my blind spots. That was an extremely personal and powerful experience.”

Chafe edited each chapter of the book, as did Segal’s wife, Joyce Wasserstein, 66, a retired psychologist. “His book became part of our family,” she says.

Segal made the digital version of his book available to download for free through the Duke University Press and says he is eager to share lessons that can be learned from the university’s failures. “The problem was not overt racists,” Segal says. “What stalled progress was everyone else who considered themselves supportive of these issues but [who] were not willing to sacrifice any capital to achieve these goals.”

He says that ongoing calls for racial understanding and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrate how much work remains to achieve racial justice. “What it will take for institutions to change is to view diversity and inclusion as a core value—not just in words, but in deeds,” he says.

University archivist Valerie Gillispie says Segal’s book is well timed as Duke recently embarked on a new commitment to anti-racism following the May 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. “I’m so impressed by what he did,” she says. “The book is a fabulous teaching tool. It tells a part of Duke history that has not been examined in a scholarly way in a monograph.”

With his project complete, Segal is processing what he learned and considering more direct involvement in racial equity issues. “Whatever I end up doing, I now understand that nonprofit board service and donations to nonprofit entities are not sufficient if you want to claim that you’re seriously committed…to racial justice,” he says.