As the first Black player on Duke’s men’s basketball team, Claudius Claiborne spent much of his time across town at N.C. Central, the historically black university.
He said he felt more at home there, in part because that’s where many of his high school classmates were students. He visited so much, he had a meal card to eat in the cafeteria.
“The world was still segregated,” he said in 2013. “There were two Durhams. Once you caught that bus and headed out toward Duke, you were entering a different world. On the weekends we would go to functions and parties at Duke, but by and large, we hung out near N.C. Central.”
It wasn’t easy being a trailblazer; at Duke he was accepted only grudgingly. One professor told him flatly it would be impossible for him to get an A in the class.
Claiborne, a native of Danville, Va., just about 90 minutes north of Durham, enrolled at Duke in 1965, just two years after the university admitted its first five African American students. Claiborne had other college options, like N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro, a historically black college, and Wake Forest. But he chose Duke, which at the time was beginning its ascent from regional power to a nationally known institution.
“No one had ever had this opportunity before, so of course you take the opportunity,” Claiborne said in 2008. “You don’t say no to it.”
Claiborne graduated from Duke in 1969 with a degree in engineering and went on to earn three graduate degrees before becoming a professor in the business school at Texas Southern University.
In February 2023, Claiborne was honored before a Duke men’s basketball game when the team warmed up wearing custom jerseys bearing Claiborne’s number 23 with his name on the back.