John Sellars will never forget the night of April 4, 1968. He was in his dormitory room at Hinton James Residence Hall when he heard people running up and down the corridor and celebrating on the balconies. When he went out to see what was going on, someone told him that Martin Luther King Jr. had just been killed. "The reason for the cheering—cheering—was because King just got assassinated," Sellars says.
UNC-Chapel Hill has long enjoyed a reputation for progressivism. But between 1952 and 1972, the first generation of black youth permitted to enroll as undergraduate students encountered a campus and a culture all but unrecognizable to us today.
"At basketball and football games, the bands would play 'Dixie,'" recalls Walter Jackson, from the class of 1967. "It was like the national anthem. You were expected to stand up for it." Fraternities and sororities admitted no black pledges, and the campus's lecture halls provided no reliable sanctuary when professors made their prejudices evident.
"Several were quite open, saying, 'You'll never get a good grade in my class,'" says James Womack, who studied medieval literature at UNC in the mid-1960s. "One had a Confederate flag displayed in his classroom." Journalist Karen Parker, who in 1965 became UNC's first black female graduate, remembers a history professor who "loved to come and stand right by my desk when he talked about lynchings."
Last weekend, those stories and others like them were given voice when UNC's Process Series staged a reading of The Black Pioneers Project at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center on Homecoming Weekend. The new script, edited by Elisabeth Lewis Corley, is based on interviews the Southern Oral History Program conducted over the past year for UNC's Center for the Study of the American South. Team members and students spoke with a group of first-generation black graduates that formed in 2010 out of UNC's annual black alumni reunions. They called themselves the Black Pioneers, and Walter Jackson was their organizer.
"They changed history and paved the way for the people who followed them," says Taylor Livingston, a Ph.D. candidate and field scholar who directed the study at SOHP. "Integration at UNC was not like it was at the University of Mississippi. Nobody died here. But the harrowing experiences of UNC's early black students have been largely left out and untold. That's why these stories are so important."
The thirteen alumni included in the script repeatedly describe having feelings of profound isolation and aloneness that were exacerbated by a number of factors. During the application process, admissions staff would actively discourage black students, even those with high SAT scores. On-campus housing policies kept black students virtually quarantined in certain residence halls. At the library and cafeteria, white students would vacate tables when black students would take a seat. Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, restaurants and other public accommodations continued to make clear who was and wasn't welcome.
"Everywhere an African-American student went, he or she felt they were under a spotlight," Jackson recalls. Because of that psychological pressure, he says, many black students who were capable of thriving academically dropped out after one semester or at the end of freshman year. Jackson likens his experience at UNC to his service during the Vietnam War.
"It's almost impossible for someone to get the feel of what it was like to be a war veteran," he says. "There's a similarity in getting others to understand what it was like to be an African-American student at Chapel Hill."
Sandra Burford, from the class of 1969, puts it bluntly: "If I conquered Carolina, then I could go just about anywhere and do anything." To honor her struggle and that of her classmates, director Joseph Megel assembled a distinguished cast of regional actors and alumni including Thomasi McDonald, Yolanda Rabun, and film and television actor Fay Hauser—a black pioneer in her own right, who graduated from UNC in 1971. Their audience included the original cast—the men and women who lived the tales being told onstage.
Megel says he regularly observes the effects of a generation of suppressed racism not only in present-day American politics but among the black female students he teaches in UNC's Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies.
"Not one of them doesn't feel the same thing," he says. "They're made to feel they don't totally belong here. They're marginalized. They're asked, 'What did you do to get here?' Their bodies are being objectified. This is happening today on campus."
After last weekend, Megel plans to develop the staged-reading script into a full-length play. "Not only is it a part of our history, but things about it are still incredibly present and true," he says. "We're not as far away from this world as we think we are."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pioneer Spirit."