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Graduate School History Spotlight: First Black Ph.D. Graduates

June 22, 2016

As The Graduate School celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2016, we are taking a look at various aspects of the school’s history. Visit https://gradschool.duke.edu/90 for more information about the 90th anniversary celebration, as well as other Graduate School history spotlights as they are published.

By Katy Jones
Communications Intern

Desegregation of Duke
James Roland Law (top right) and Ida Stephens Owens,
Duke's first two Black doctoral graduates.

From discovering genetic defects in children to breaking numerous world records, Ida Stephens Owens and James Roland Law have achieved extraordinary success. Their historic accomplishments at Duke, though, would not have been possible if not for the university's decision to desegregate in 1961.

Owens and Law became the first African Americans to earn a Ph.D. from Duke in 1967, six years after the Board of Trustees voted to desegregate the university’s graduate and professional schools on March 8, 1961.

Duke became one of the last major universities to desegregate. The year before the Board of Trustees’ vote, a survey of Duke graduate students showed that an overwhelming majority favored integration. The first Black graduate students enrolled at Duke in fall 1961, two years before Duke’s first Black undergraduates.

Owens was among the first three African American students who enrolled at The Graduate School, in 1962, while Law entered in September of the following year.

“I am eternally grateful to Duke,” Owens said in The Graduate School’s 2014 documentary about her career and her time at Duke. “Eternally grateful for the fact that they allowed me to enter that school.

“And it was Dr. Tosteston who made it happen.”

Daniel C. Tosteson, who later helped reshape American medical education as dean of Harvard Medical School, was chair of the Duke Department of Physiology in the 1960s. He was intentional in his effort to visit surrounding black colleges to identify promising students for advanced study in the sciences. It was during one such visit to North Carolina College at Durham (now North Carolina Central University) that James S. Lee, then chair of biology at North Carolina College, introduced him to Owens.

Ida Owens documentary
Ida Stephens Owens's time at Duke was chronicled
in a 2014 documentary by The Graduate School.

“[Tosteston] was interested in a more inclusive environment at Duke,” Owens said. “And I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

“I remember when I heard he was the one to find Ida Owens … I was not surprised,” said Onye Akwari, the first black professor of surgery at Duke. “You could see that he was a man who was sincerely interested in the progress of all human beings.”

J. Joseph Blum, a James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Cell Biology who was Owens’ adviser, said Tosteston “made sure that everything was going okay for her—that there was no problem anywhere of any kind of negative reaction just because she was black.”

“People were gregarious,” Owens said. “They welcomed me; they talked; they were very nice.”

“I had never been around white people before,” she added. “That was my first time working with them, having a conversation with them that was beyond purchasing things.”

After receiving her Ph.D. in physiology in 1967, Owens became a leader at the National Institutes of Health, initiating a research program that is now recognized nationally and internationally for its studies on the genetics of human diseases. She was the first to determine genetic defects in children with Crigler-Najjar diseases, a rare disorder affecting the metabolism of bilirubin.

In 2013, Owens became the inaugural recipient of The Graduate School’s Distinguished Alumni Award. Today, she continues to serve as the head of the Section on Genetic Disorders of Drug Metabolism in the Program on Developmental Endocrinology and Genetics at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

James Law in Sports Illustrated
Law was featured in a 1993
issue of Sports Illustrated.

Law, meanwhile, had a long career at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, after receiving his Ph.D. in psychology. He served in a number of roles, including professor of psychology; chair of the Department of Psychology; head of the Division of Education, Physical Education, and Psychology; vice president for academic affairs; and James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Psychology. Upon his retirement in 1995, he was named professor emeritus of psychology.

For health reasons, Law began sprinting competitively in 1987. He won numerous medals and broke many records. These included six gold medals and six records in the National Senior Games, as well as three world records and three American records in his age group. He went on to become an active leader in the National Senior Games under the Clinton presidential administration.

Law died March 10, 1996, but the Charlotte Flights Track and Field Club holds an annual track-and-field meet in his name to, as the club website says, commemorate “a man who gave freely of himself to all and sought to improve the lives and health of all he touched.”