One of UNC’s first black students looks back, 50 years later

Sep. 14, 2013 @ 11:38 AM

Fifty years ago this fall, around the same time Duke University was opening the doors for its first five African-American undergraduate students, I became one of 17 "Negro" students among about 2,000 freshmen enrolling at UNC-Chapel Hill. 

That number more than doubled the total number of African-American undergraduates among what was then about a 10,000-student population at UNC.  The first black undergraduates had been admitted in 1955, but by 1963 there was still only a paltry presence of black students.

Several days ago, during the first days of this school year, I drove to Chapel Hill from my home in Durham and took a brief look around town and at the university campus and thought about some of the things that have changed and some of the things that have not changed during the last 50 years. 

The change was striking.  Less striking, but also very real, is what has not changed.

In the fall of 1963, African-American students walking on campus or on Franklin Street would usually scan in vain for the face of another African-American student, but rarely would we see one.  And there would almost never be another African-American student in a class with us.  There was an unspoken but definitely felt atmosphere of intimidation and isolation for African-American students in those days.  There were relatively few female students or other minority students at the university at that time either. Only one of the 17 African-American freshmen in 1963 was a female.

Today, students of various racial and ethnic groups, both genders and differing sexual orientations roam the town and campus, seemingly oblivious to how things used to be.  Female students are now in the majority on campus.  Surprisingly, as I sat in a restaurant on Franklin Street recently watching the passing parade, it did not even occur to me that 50 years ago I could not have done that, because most restaurants and other public accommodations in Chapel Hill were still segregated, and I would not have been admitted because of my skin color.  Even a convenience store in Chapel Hill was segregated.  By the time I graduated in 1967, civil rights protests and the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 had largely banished segregation in public accommodations in Chapel Hill and the rest of the nation.

There were no African-American professors or instructors, no black administrators or professional staff, and one would be hard pressed to find a black secretary, typist, bookkeeper, receptionist or even file clerk on the entire college campus or on the staff at Memorial Hospital in 1963.  Black employees did fill the ranks of the custodial staffs, but not in supervisory positions, and were employed cooking and serving in the dining halls and in unskilled positions in the maintenance area.

In 1963, no black student had ever been allowed to compete for the university in any sport, nor were there any black cheerleaders.  The following year, Jimmy Womack from Selma became the first black student on the cheerleading squad and Willie Cooper, Jr. from Elm City made the freshman basketball team, opening the doors for Charlie Scott, Bill Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Lawrence Taylor and the many other black athletes who have brought pride, victories and championships to UNC.

In addition to there being no African-American professors on campus 50 years ago, female professors and administrators were few and far between, and the thought of a female chancellor in Chapel Hill would have seemed but a fantasy.  Today, of course, Chancellor Carol Folt oversees campus activity from her office in South Building, and many other female, African-American and other minority administrators, professors and other academic officers hold sway in classrooms and offices on the campus and at UNC Hospitals.

Some of the most striking changes during the past 50 years, of course, were brought about by the technological revolution.  A significant number of the students walking around town and campus recently were deeply engrossed in cell phone conversations, sending or receiving text messages and doing other things students do these days on their mobile devices. It’s a different world.

The businesses on and near Franklin Street have changed dramatically.  Many businesses that were staples in the area 50 years ago, such as Harry's, the Rathskeller, the Porthole, the Carolina Theater and Huggins Hardware, are gone.  Relative newcomers including Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, the Waffle House and FedEx have popped up.  The Varsity Theater is still hanging on.

Among the major issues in the country in 1963 were “Jobs and Freedom” including voting rights, and the event in Washington, D.C., where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech was formally named “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

Among the major issues in the U.S. today —jobs and voting rights.  The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.

Walter Jackson has been a journalist (including a stint as a reporter for the Durham Morning Herald) and worked in business and in government in several areas of the country.  He is partially retired in Durham.