Civil rights activist, government official
An important civil rights activist of the 1960s and 1970s and a campaigner for over 30 years, Hazel Nell Dukes is a leading figure in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as the organization's national president between 1989 and 1992. Dukes built a career in various social service agencies, but she was most successful working for the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation (NYCOTB). She worked for the corporation for 25 years before being made its president by New York City Mayor David Dinkins in 1990. Yet Dukes has also received a healthy share of criticism and controversy. She was ousted from her position in the NAACP in 1992 after an argument over immigration; and she left the NYCOTB in 1994 when incoming New York mayor Rudy Giuliani criticized the organization for consistently losing money. In 1997 she admitted stealing $13,000 from a disabled NYCOTB worker who trusted her to cash checks. Finally, her return as president of the New York City Branch of the NAACP in 1999 was overshadowed by accusations of foul play in the election. Despite these troubles, many still look to Dukes as an important figure in New York's black community.
Hazel Nell Dukes was born on March 17, 1932, in Montgomery, Alabama, the daughter and only child of Edward and Alice Dukes. Dukes was raised in Montgomery and, intending to become a teacher, attended Alabama State Teachers College (now Alabama State University) beginning in 1949. But in 1955 she moved with her parents to New York City and began studying at Nassau Community College while she worked at Macy's department store. Her studies in business administration soon led her into working for governmental organizations. In 1966 she became the first black American to work for the Nassau County Attorney's Office and later worked for the Nassau County Economic Opportunity Commission (EOC) as a community organizer. There she was responsible for organizing day care and schooling for poor children, as well as for coordinating transportation for people unable to attend college or find work because they were unable to travel. Throughout her life Dukes has shown a deep commitment to the importance of education and worked hard in the 1960s to improve the educational chances of many people in deprived areas; Dukes herself did not finally graduate with a bachelor's degree from Adelphi University until 1978.
Dukes' career saw her work in many government agencies concerned with helping low-income families. She became known in the 1960s as an outspoken campaigner on behalf of minority groups, especially through her work with the Nassau County Consumer Division, and as a board member of the State of New York Mortgage Agency. Most significantly Dukes worked for the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation (NYCOTB) and was appointed its president in 1990 by mayor David Dinkins (she stepped down in 1994 when Dinkins left office). While she found success in business, Dukes was also working for the NAACP, participating in many marches and having six arrests to her credit as a protester. She was president of the Great Neck, Manhasset, Port Washington, Roslyn chapter and national president of the organization from 1989 to 1992. She was ousted from office during a period of in-fighting that threatened to destroy the organization.
Dukes's political activism extends also to campaigning for the Democratic party. She worked for President Lyndon Johnson's "Head Start" program in the 1960s and was the first black vice-chair of the Nassau County Democratic Committee. She served on the party's national committee from 1976 to 1982. During the years of the Reagan and Bush presidencies in the 1980s and early 1990s Dukes was an outspoken opponent of policies that she felt undermined the achievements of the civil rights movements of the 1960s. But though Dukes's political career has made her one of the most important black activists and campaigners of the last quarter of the twentieth century, her record was blighted when in 1997 she admitted to stealing $13,000 from a co-worker at the NYCTOB. Her plea bargain meant that she was not imprisoned for the offense, but it forced her resignation from office in the NAACP and damaged the careers of several other officers. The damage to the 90-year-old organization, which was already under pressure to demonstrate it had not stagnated, was significant. Dukes caused controversy again when she ran for president of the New York state NAACP in 1999 and was re-elected. Opponents claimed she had rigged the election.
After her return to office Dukes struggled to rebuild her reputation. She has spearheaded several important campaigns, especially efforts to persuade a new generation to take over leadership of the NAACP. She has also pushed for education reforms and views the civil rights movements of the 1960s as unfinished business. In a speech made in the fall of 2004 Dukes linked the NAACP campaign to reduce class sizes in New York City Schools with important earlier battles in the civil rights movement. She declared that "Only if your deliberations end in smaller classes, for all children in all grades, will they be provided with their constitutional rights to a sound basic education. Only then will the promise of Brown vs. Board of Education be achieved."
At a Glance …
Born Hazel Nell Dukes on March 17, 1932 in Montgomery, Alabama. Children: Ronald. Education: Alabama State Teacher College, AA, 1950; Adelphi University, BA, business administration, 1978.
Career: Worked at Macy's department store in the 1950s; Nassau County Attorney's Office; Nassau County Economic Opportunity Commission (EOC), community organizer; New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation, 1965–90, president, 1990–94; Great Neck, Manhasset, Port Washington, Roslyn chapter of the NAACP, president; NAACP, national president, 1989–92; New York NAACP, president, 1999–.
Memberships: Coalition of 100 Black Women, board of directors; State of New York Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, board of directors; NAACP; State University of New York, board of trustees; Democratic National Committee.
Awards: Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Social Action Award, 1976; National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs, Sojurner Truth Award, 1977; Dollar and Sense magazine, Salute to African American Women, 1989; New York City Human Rights Commission, Award for Outstanding Contribution to Social Justice, 1985; B'nai B'rith, Award for Promoting Justice and Interracial Harmony, 1990; honorary doctorate from the City University of New York Law School at Queens College, 1990.
Addresses: Office—NAACP, 270 West 96th Street, New York, NY 10025.
New York Newsday, January 29, 1987.
Washington Post, February 20, 1992.
Albany Times Union (New York), February 9, 2004.
Jet, November 10, 1997.
"Hazel Dukes," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (December 23, 2005).
"NAACP Ousts Civil Rights Activist," CNN Interactive, http://cgi.cnn.com/US/9712/20/briefs.pm/naacp/ (December 23, 2005).
"NAACP Summons Emerging Leaders to Reshape an Agenda for Social Justice," BlackNews, www.blacknews.com/pr/socialjustice101.html (December 23, 2005).
"Testimony from Hazel Dukes," Class Size Matters, www.classsizematters.org/dukestestimony.html (December 23, 2005).
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