Atlanta’s David Duke ponders what’s in a name

By Guest Columnist DAVID HUGHES DUKE, president of Living Stories Film and Video, which produces video for corporations and non-profit organizations, and creates independent films for public television

I have long known that life is relationships. My parents taught me this, my faith tells me this, and my experience proves it true.

My mother was born in the Bolton community of west Atlanta, a neighborhood of modest income bordered by the mill village of Riverside on the south and by Buckhead on the north. The center of my mother’s life was Collins Memorial United Methodist Church. Mary Carolyn Hughes was christened there in 1922 and married there 20 years later, to an airman on his way to war. It was her church that sustained her when she got the dreaded Western Union telegram.

David Hughes Duke

David Hughes Duke

Lt. Duke disappeared in the skies over Normandy but was found, completed his 30 missions, and returned to build a home in Bolton. My brothers and I were christened at Collins Memorial just as Carolyn had been. Mom and Dad named me David – not after a family member, but a Hebrew king. Mrs. Jeanie Tidwell, my Sunday school teacher, told me David means “beloved.” I believed her because it sounded like love when she said it.

Bolton was a white community. There were black folks living less than a mile from my church, and I never knew them. Bolton Elementary School fed West Fulton High in Grove Park, also all-white. In 1961 Atlanta Public Schools began a slow process of desegregation, but as school opened in the fall of 1964, the black kids at West Fulton formed just more than 50 percent of the student population.

That year West Fulton set the Atlanta record for white flight. By the time I started high school in 1967, the Bolton kids were being bused downtown to O’Keefe High. The city fathers backed away from “forced busing” and installed a voluntary program: Students who wanted to transfer from a school in which their race was the majority to a school in which their race was a minority could do so.

For the first time in my life, I had the chance to meet black people my age. By the time I was a senior at O’Keefe, our cheerleading squads, sports teams, arts programs, and honor societies were all mixed-race. I had friends in all these groups, and my name was suddenly cool. The cheerleaders sang “Duke of Earl” to induce the basketball coach to put me in the game.

david duke:church

David Hughes Duke treasures Collins Hill Methodist Church, where he, his brothers and his mother were christened. The church now serves a congregation of black, Hispanic, and white members. Credit: David Hughes Duke

My home town was changing, and that was good. But the year I turned 22, my name also changed. The Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan was elected to the Louisiana state legislature. DAVID DUKE appeared in two-inch type on front pages all over the country.

To this day, I almost never meet an African American without my name creating a barrier.

That first moment of contact is clouded by projections that have nothing to do with me. I think it gives me a tiny glimpse of how black Americans must have felt, and still feel, almost 60 years after the start of Civil Rights Movement.

My name has now hit the papers again. Television and social media beam it into outer space and bounce it back to every country in the world. David Duke is proclaiming as confidently as ever the anti-American, anti-human, anti-Gospel message that my father and many others fought against from 1941 to 1945. The violence in Charlottesville on Aug. 12 is only the latest in a resurgence of venom not seen since the days of the Freedom Riders. Hatred has been emboldened. Black churches are being terrorized and Jewish cemeteries desecrated.

Where does such poison come from? Why does it stubbornly persist? I don’t understand the causes, but I do know an antidote. Dr. Walter Kimbrough, beloved former pastor of Cascade Road United Methodist Church, told me that racial healing can happen only in the heart – and the only way it can spread is from one heart to another.

I am blessed in this regard. As a filmmaker, I have opportunities to form relationships with many kinds of people, and the love that surrounded me as a child makes me open to them. Filmmaking for me is a relational medium.

An Atlanta native and businessman shares his name with the other David Duke – the former KKK grand wizard and Louisiana state representative. Atlanta’s David Hughes Duke notes the forename is Hebrew for ‘beloved.’ Credit:

Twelve years ago I spent three days interviewing African Americans in Summer Hill, the traditionally black community in Cartersville, Georgia. I sat at the feet of Mrs. Susie Wheeler, well into her 90s, and she became my own grandmother. When people see the film, she becomes theirs. People from all over the country tell us that “Summer Hill” changed their attitudes toward race.

Miracles do happen; I see them every day. My Sunday school teacher is now 93 years old and teaching black, Hispanic, and white children at Collins Memorial. My old friends from high school, Cindy and Jimmy, have moved back to the community and established a food pantry and other outreach programs. Collins is the catalyst for a fresh flowering of the neighborhood. Georgia’s film industry has discovered the lovely old church; if you saw the wedding scene in “Hidden Figures,” you were visiting my spiritual cradle.

Who knows? Perhaps one day my namesake will open himself to a friendship with someone of “The Other” – perhaps one of the Jewish people he fears so much. If he does, he may discover something:

In Hebrew, “David” means “beloved.”

Note to readers: visit “Living Stories Film and Video” to see more works by David Hughes Duke and fellow filmmaker and his son John Duke. To contact him, please email him at: [email protected]


10 replies
  1. Paula Whatley Matabane says:

    Well Mr David Duke I knew where this article was going before I read it. All I could do was laugh because of my mother’s family experience. Her father was named Jefferson Deveaux Davis. Irony of all ironies he was born a slave in Alabama. I was present in 1959 when the Columbus School board named a school after him and was given the honor of unveiling his portrait. Over the years they have altered the name from the Jefferson Davis School to the JD Davis School. Someone decided to move his portrait from the front entrance to the library because Grandpa looked very much like his white father. BTW, while Granddaddy knew his white father he never revealed that name to Grandmama or their children. Granddaddy Davis was not related to CSA president Davis. Grandmama always said,” If he was we would have got something.” LOL

    My genealogical research on my grandfather shows that he clearly was ever aware of his infamous namesake so he referred to himself as either JD Davis or Jeff D Davis as did his son Jeff Jr.

    Thank you for a beautiful article that recalled so many events that also touched my life growing up in Atlanta.Report

  2. Don Harp says:

    Not only are you a great maker of films and videos, but now I know you are a master at spinning stories that warms a heart.
    Thank you for the several videos you did for me and my church, but thank you for this heart warming testimony.
    As those born in the South often say, “bless your pea picking heart”. Made my day .
    Don HarpReport

    • David Hughes Duke says:

      Thank you, Don! You’ve been one of my favorite people since we first met. You’re also one of several Methodist ministers who’ve enlightened and enriched my path of life. Please keep in touch! It’s so good to hear from you.


  3. Alvin M. Sugarman says:

    David, you are the absolute antithesis of everything the ‘other’ David Duke represents. Thank you for being the magnificent human being you are and writing this wonderful article.Report

  4. Elizabeth Sosnowski says:

    What more can I say than everything I have already said? This is what: everything I have said all over again. You and Ceci constantly reflect God’s love for all of us by your kindness, humility, wisdom, eagerness to engage with God’s children everywhere and great good humor. I believe a person cannot be hateful and joyful simultaneously. You chose joy. Maybe some day the other David Duke will,too. If not, Heaven is going to be a real surprise for him,hopefully a healing one.Report


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