Their Duke wedding was 'a big deal.' Then came 50 years of racial progress – and strife.

First black couple wed at Duke Chapel celebrate 50th anniversary

50 years ago, Fred and Sylvia Black became the African American couple to get married at Duke Chapel.
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50 years ago, Fred and Sylvia Black became the African American couple to get married at Duke Chapel.

Fred Black and Sylvia Sloan got engaged in December 1967 as they were approaching their final semester at Howard University.

The historically black college in Washington, D.C., sent students home four months later when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968.

“When King was assassinated, the city was burning,” Sylvia said.

She returned to Durham, where her parents were handling the details of her upcoming wedding. A stellar student, she was worried that she had already missed so much school — the university had closed for a week in March when students took over the administration building with a list of demands.

Racial tension gripped the country that spring, but Fred and Sylvia knew they had each other. And they knew the significance of their wedding — not just for themselves but for a society in turmoil.

On June 10, 1968, they would become the first African-American couple to get married at Duke University Chapel.

“It was a pretty big deal,” Sylvia recalled recently.

“For Durhamites, it was symbolic,” Fred added.

This month, Fred and Sylvia Black, both 71, are celebrating their 50th anniversary. The couple, who have had successful careers and remain active in the Chapel Hill community, are reflecting on a journey that made history and reflecting on the racial divides that continue today.

Vandals defaced the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee near the entrance of Duke Chapel last August, about a week after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. Two days after the vandalism, the president of Duke University ordered the removal of the Lee statue.

Weddings have taken place at Duke Chapel, on the university’s campus, since the nuptials of James B. Duke’s grand-niece in 1933. It remains a coveted venue, where weddings are booked a year in advance. About 75 couples marry there each year.

Fred and Sylvia Black were the first African-American couple married in Duke Chapel. They will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on June 10, 2018. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

But in the segregated South during the height of the civil rights movement, Fred and Sylvia didn’t set out to get married at Duke Chapel.

Sylvia’s father, Maceo Sloan, was executive vice president of N.C. Mutual Insurance Co., founded by the family. Her mother, Charlotte, was involved in volunteer work in Durham and served on a committee with James Cleland, then the dean of Duke Chapel.

“Where’s the wedding?” Cleland asked Charlotte one day.

“We’re trying to figure it out,” she replied. The family’s church, White Rock Baptist, had been torn down as part of urban renewal. The auditorium in which the congregation was meeting was too small to host the wedding.

“Why don’t you have it at Duke Chapel?” Cleland asked.

When she said the family didn’t have any association with the chapel, Cleland, who was from Scotland, said, “I do.”

“You’re not from here,” Charlotte told him. “I’m not sure you understand what you’re offering.”

But Cleland asked the university’s president, Douglas M. Knight, who agreed: “Everybody has decided it’s time.”

More strife was yet to come. U.S. Sen. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated on June 6, 1968, the day before Fred and Sylvia graduated from Howard.

Four days later, about 1,000 guests attended their wedding.

“There were some people who came who were clearly not invited but just showed up,” Sylvia said.

“People told us later, ‘We didn’t want to miss that history,’” Fred said, adding that police were there in case of trouble. But no protesters arrived.

‘Revolution was happening’

Sylvia attended Howard University on a full scholarship. In high school, several colleges and universities recruited her because of her high SAT scores.

“There was an article in the Washington Post about me,” Sylvia said. “It was unusual for an African-American female to get that much interest.”

Her choices came down to Howard, Duke and Vanderbilt. She wanted to be a math major, and all had good math departments.

She was a finalist for the Angier B. Duke Scholarship and would have been part of the second class of African-American students admitted to Duke.

But her parents didn’t want her to stay in Durham. She was an introvert, and they didn’t want her to spend all her time studying. Her father urged her to go to Howard.

Fred, a native of Chicago, grew up in an Army family, spending part of his high school career in Liberia. He finished high school in Detroit, where he stayed with his aunt and uncle. They were Howard alumni, along with his parents, and they all felt Howard would be a good fit for Fred. His brother and two nieces also graduated from there.

“I never regretted it for a day,” he said.

Fred and Sylvia arrived in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1964 and soon started dating. “Dancing in the Streets” by Martha and the Vandellas played at their freshman orientation party.

But the mood soon changed.

“It was very clear in our junior year that revolution was happening in us and around us,” Fred said.

Some students left school to become Freedom Riders, traveling around the South to advocate for an end to segregated public buses. Others worried they would be drafted by the military if they dropped out of school.

‘As amazing as they seem’

Together, Fred and Sylvia have led ambitious lives.

Fred became a second lieutenant in the Army, spent 15 years as a professor at West Point and earned a master’s degree in public policy and politics from Syracuse University. Two years ago, Barack Obama appointed him to West Point’s Board of Visitors. He retired last year after a second career as a management consultant.

Sylvia became the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. She later taught 14 years at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and the N.C. A&T School of Business. She now works part time as an executive coach for several organizations and is the president and founder of Black Star Strategies.

They raised two children: Rick Black, who is a professor at West Point, and Shana Sullivan, a human resources director in Illinois. They have three grandchildren.

For more than two decades, the couple has lived in Chapel Hill, where the local Chamber of Commerce named them Citizens of the Year in 2015.

They are active at Holy Trinity Lutheran in Chapel Hill, where they have served as mentors for the Lutheran Campus Ministry.

“I cherish them being able to be present with students as role models of faithfulness,” said the Rev. Mark Coulter, who has been pastor at the church since 1999.

Susan Hoerger, a friend and neighbor, tells a personal story about Fred.

“Fred told me this story in the context of parenting advice,” Hoerger said. “When he taught Sunday School at Holy Trinity, a teen came to him very upset about something, worried about what others would think. Fred looked this teen in the eye and said, ‘Well, I love you, and God loves you.’ And that was it. Can you imagine the power in that?”

Fred officiated at the wedding of Hoerger’s older son. And when her younger son, Jacob, was worried as a 4-year-old when his dad was traveling, she simply told him, “Well, two doors down from us is a retired Army colonel. He will protect you.”

Then she picked up the phone and called Fred. She doesn’t know what he told the boy, but Jacob went right to sleep.

Sylvia is involved with Habitat for Humanity, and the organization built a home four years ago in honor of the Blacks’ 50th anniversary — an early gift.

The couple’s children were instrumental in the project, which raised $80,000.

“They are so wonderful,” Hoerger said of Fred and Sylvia. “They really are as amazing as they seem.”

'Paved the way of hope'

The Rev. Luke Powery was named the first African-American dean of Duke Chapel in 2012. He said his success is thanks in part to Fred and Sylvia.

“Without them, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing here in the chapel,” Powery said. “It’s a wonderful witness toward the future that Duke couldn’t even fully imagine. We are not what we used to be, but we are not what we could be.”

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Fred and Sylvia Black were the first African American couple married in Duke Chapel. They celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on June 10, 2018. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

Still, Powery said, “Fred and Sylvia have had courage, and they have paved the way of hope for so many of us.”

After the Confederate statue at the chapel was vandalized last summer, Powery said he hoped conversations about the monument would offer “the possibility of healing that will come.”

Healing is possible, Sylvia said.

“In a couple more generations, many of our racial problems may dissipate because so many Americans will have members of their own families whose ancestors were of races different from their own ancestors,” she said. “There will no longer be the prevalent ideas that ‘they are different from us’ because ‘they’ will be ‘us.’”

But there’s still work to be done, Fred said.

“Race is the great American divide, more so than class, economics and education,” he said. “We as a nation made progress as a result of the actions in the ’60s and ’70s. We then patted ourselves on the back and declared the issue resolved. As individuals, we have much evidence of success in closing the racial divide, but as a nation, we seem to be re-fighting the battles of the past.”

He added: “We need to commit to honest conversations and stop thinking that if we ignore discussing race, the issue will simply go away.”

Susan Shinn Turner is a correspondent for The News & Observer.