Last week, I had the extraordinary opportunity to interview Duke alumna, Dr. Brenda Armstrong, the Associate Dean of Diversity at Duke Medical School and the second African American woman in the United States to become a board-certified pediatric cardiologist. In addition to her accomplishments in the medicinal field, Armstrong is an activist on another front, paving the way towards a more inclusive campus. Today, under her leadership, Duke is one of the most racially diverse Medical Schools in the country.
During her interview, she recalled many influential experiences, such as watching Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver a speech in her hometown of Rocky Mount, NC and shadowing her father as he fought for the right to vote, which inspired her to participate in the Allen Building Takeover of 1969. While Armstrong did recount some fond memories during her under-graduate years at Duke, such as “Black Week”, a week-long event dedicated to honoring elements of African American culture, she recalled many more times when she “felt that I didn’t have a place at Duke.”
She recalled that once while brushing her teeth, a fellow Duke student put her hand on her face to see if the “black would come off.” Although the living arrangements at Duke were segregated by gender, with female students housed exclusively on East Campus, Armstrong noted that being a racial minority (only one of twenty African American students in her class) defined her experience as a student much more so than her identity as a woman. Armstrong explained that when the African American student community would “speak up [about instances of discrimination] we were often met with tremendous amounts of anger.” Despite this obstacle, however, she stated that “Duke needed to hear” and so, along with approximately fifty other African American student protestors, she decided to risk not only her enrollment at Duke, but also her physical safety.
Many of the Afro-American Society’s demands, such as the incorporation of an African American Studies Department and an on-campus association for African American students, were met with great resistance from some administrators, faculty members, and students. Armstrong, however, did not consider the requests to be “demands” at all, but instead “reasonable accommodations for the fact that our culture was not like their culture.” Due to the resilience of the protestors, many of their accommodations were eventually implemented at Duke, and many universities throughout the South.
I chose Dr. Brenda Armstrong as the first featured woman for my mentorship group not only because she is an accomplished physician and educator, but also because of her fearless conviction for, in her words, “speaking up for freedom”, a quality that I believe is extremely important, yet often not stressed to young women. Furthermore, many of the young women in the group are from minority backgrounds, making Armstrong’s experiences all the more powerful. Her fight for equality on campus, in the community, and as a result, the world, make her an inspirational woman whose story I believe will also benefit other young women.