It’s by far the most iconic building on campus. Its owners know who designed it and who the contractors were. Now, they’re setting out on a journey to find out who actually built Duke Chapel.
Duke University’s chief archivist, Valerie Gillispie, has commissioned a six-week summer research project to “identify as many names as possible” of the carpenters, masons, stone cutters and other craftsmen who erected the chapel in the early 1930s. The Franklin Humanities Institute is lining up a team of graduate students and undergraduates to do the work.
Until now, the identity of the workers remained “a question that hasn’t been asked plainly,” she said. “We’ve certainly had people do research on particular parts of the chapel, such the stained-glass windows, but knowing more about the workers and their experiences building the chapel hasn’t been a focus before.”
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That changed in large part because of the late-summer controversy that surrounded the presence at, vandalism and eventual removal of a statue of former Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the entrance of the chapel.
After ordering workers to take down Lee’s image and store it, Duke President Vince Price asked a group of trustees, administrators, faculty and students for advice on how to head off future such squabbles.
Eventually, the “Commission on Memory and History” urged Duke officials to wait a year before deciding on the statue’s replacement. But it offered several other recommendations, including that the university’s leaders seize “this opportunity to explore Duke’s history in a conscious and intentional manner.”
That should include attempts to size up “Duke’s physical space and how it reflects our community,” both to educate students and “research and celebrate previously unrecognized members of our community,” the panel said.
Gillispie isn’t shying away from the job.
“The project was one that was inspired by the removal of the statue outside the chapel back in August,” she said. “Both we in the archives and the administration have been wanting to bring the subject of university history more to the fore, to have students and others be more aware of the history and better understand the context that brought us to where we are today.”
The archivist has commissioned student research before, but this is the first time she’s gone to Franklin Humanities Institute’s Story+ program for help.
Story+ is geared to undergraduates looking for hands-on research experience and graduate students who are looking to acquire experience managing and leading research teams. Selected groups use Duke’s first summer session – the last half of May and all of June – to delve into projects suggested by administrators and faculty members.
For specialists in the humanities, archival work, oral history interviewing and ultimately storytelling are tools of the trade, and Gillispie is expecting all of them to come into play as the students figure out how to identify the construction workers and report their findings. She expects it’ll be “somewhat of an adventure” for them because Duke doesn’t necessarily have on hand all the records they’ll need.
“For the more part, the names aren’t readily available of the people who worked day to day” on the construction site between 1930 and 1932, Gillispie said. “We won’t know until we get into the archives, but we have ledgers from the time of the building that have information about payroll. We will use that to guide us.”
To supplement that, the students likely will also have to troll through old newspapers and other secondary sources to find names. And Gillispie expects they’ll also reach out to the community at large to turn up others.
“We’d love to know, from people in Durham or anywhere, about family members they know who worked on the chapel, and whether there are snapshots or other documents that tell us what it was like to be working on that building at that particular moment,” she said.
Ultimately, Gillispie and her Duke archives colleagues would like to see the project end with the creation of a web site that lays out its findings, bringing “the names and stories of these individuals to light.”
But that “will really depend on the group of students and the graduate students we assemble,” Gillispie said. “If they get excited about something different, like a documentary, we’d be supportive of that too. But we’d like it to be something available to anyone.”
The Story+ effort could also become “the beginning of a larger project,” depending on what the students find and “what new questions” their work generates, she said.
The Stone by Stone project is one of two Gillispie has commissioned from Story+. The other focuses on the 1969 Allen Building sit-in and coincides with the upcoming 50th anniversay of that event a year from now.