Duncan family shares experiences as Board proclaims June 12 Loving Day, celebrating monumental court case legalizing interracial marriage

June 11, 2021

When Rudy Duncan, a Black man whose family traces their roots to enslaved people in Alabama, met and married Joyce Duncan, a Russian Jewish woman, many states still outlawed interracial marriage. 

“You could be fined, put in jail, or even lynched,” Rudy said.

Besides the potential danger from those they didn’t know, the couple faced prejudice and hostility from both the white and Black communities that Joyce and Rudy came from, respectively. Rudy recalls having conversations with Joyce around bringing their son, Ben Duncan, now Multnomah County’s Chief Diversity and Equity Officer, into a world with so much racial disharmony and lack of acceptance of diversity. 

“I also knew that no matter how [Ben and his sister] saw themselves, they would get an identity essentially assigned to them by others, and that my job was to help them understand and prepare them for that discrepancy,” Joyce said.

But all of the complications and prejudice made their family stronger. 

“We have endured those struggles. We have kept our relationship strong and let our love for each other transcend all of the negativity in the community,” Rudy said. 

Things have changed since then, says Rudy, in large part “because of more interracial and multicultural families and people opening up their hearts to differences.”

“This new generation of multicultural families are strengthening our society by their diversity, by their positive resources, the ideas they bring, and their ability to work with others,” he says.

The Duncan family joined the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners during the Thursday, June 10, board meeting to proclaim June 12 as Loving Day in Multnomah County, an annual recognition on the anniversary of the 1967 United States Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision. The case was brought on behalf of Mildred Jeter, a woman of mixed African American and Native American heritage, and Richard Loving, a white man, who married each other in Washington, D.C. but were arrested in their home state of Virginia jail and sentenced to a year in jail for breaking the state’s anti-miscegenation laws banning interracial marriage. The Court unanimously struck down all remaining anti-miscegenation laws, legalizing interracial marriage in all 50 states. 

Celebrations are held across the country to commemorate this landmark civil rights decision and its impacts on families’ lives.

By recognizing Loving Day, Multnomah County hopes to honor and underscore progress made toward equity and power of the people from all backgrounds seeking to marry. 

Chief Diversity & Equity Officer Ben Duncan and his wife Katherine Rodela, and son Rudy
Accompanied by his wife, Katherine Rodela, and son Rudy, named after his grandfather, Ben spoke about his experience being biracial. He said that exploring his identity had both been difficult and a life-long pursuit.

“There’s a deep pain that I’ve felt at times, both from my youth when friends would say, ‘Well I don’t really think of you as Black,’ to the erasure of identity that comes with positional authority,” he said.

He also spoke of how his life experience as a biracial person helped build a foundation and framework for his work at Multnomah County. For example, understanding that holding multiple identities can provide both spaces of privilege and spaces of oppression have been central to his efforts to help the County develop and advance the concept of leading with race. 

“The Lovings and the metaphor they represent in this work, showed quite literally, that love can transcend what seems like impenetrable boundaries of race and demonstrates that as we transcend these categories that have divided our communities, that multi-racial, multicultural, and intergenerational work can lead towards greater connection, empathy, and ultimately, liberation.” 

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson thanked the Duncan family for sharing their experiences, saying that it will be something that will “stick in my memory for a long time.” 

The daughter of a white father and Mexican-American mother, Vega Pederson added that navigating through different cultures and expectations was an experience that she identified with. 

“Every time I hear the story of the Loving family it always strikes me that they spent more of their marriage fighting to have their marriage recognized by this country than they were able to spend together without it,” she said.

“That fight and the monumental change that it meant for this country is something that we are going to be forever grateful for.” 

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal thanked Ben for the way he shows up in his work with such authenticity and his ability to share the connection between his life and work, saying that it has been a role model to her. 

Commissioner Jayapal said that as the parent of two biracial children, so much of what Rudy and Joyce Duncan shared resonated with her, calling it a “gift” to meet them.

“They have each been asked many times the question ‘What are you?’ from when they were tiny, and their answers were things like ‘I’m a soccer player.’ They didn’t understand what the question was, but they knew that there was something wrong with it and knew they were being asked to jump inside of a box that didn’t feel right,” she said.

“Love does transcend, love does bridge, love is the antithesis of white supremacy and racism. This is going to continue and those bridges are going to continue to be built in the shape of our relationships with each other.”