UNCG Campus Weekly

Campus Weekly is published each Wednesday when classes are in session. In the summer, it is published biweekly.

Civil Rights, Up Close and Personal

042110Feature2_CivilRightsOn the EUC stage last Friday were some campus pioneers in the civil rights movement.

JoAnne Smart Drane was one of the first two African-American students to enroll, in 1956. She and another African-American classmate, the late Bettye Ann Davis Tillman, were honored this year with the naming of the Smart-Tillman professorship.

Beside Drane was one of the first Woman’s College (UNCG) students who sat-in at the Woolworth Sit-ins, Ann Dearsley-Vernon. They both were members of the Class of 1960, which was reuniting as part of Reunion.

“Ann [Dearsley-Vernon] and I are from Raleigh,” Drane explained. “This is the first day we’ve ever met.”

Being one of the first two African-American students on campus entailed being “invisible, but in plain view,” Drane said. A small group of students were outwardly friendly, and many kindnesses were shown, but ultimately it was a lonely experience.

Drane, after graduating, would not set foot on campus again for 30 years. She would later serve on the UNCG Board of Trustees and as Alumni Association vice president.

Dearsley-Vernon spoke next. “I didn’t know there were two young black woman students on campus … I don’t know how I could have been so ignorant of that.” Dearsley-Vernon and two other white students heard of the sit-in at Woolworth in February 1960, and quickly decided – as they munched on muffins in the campus cafeteria reading a newspaper– that they’d walk down there. “Let’s go support them,” the student said. They put on their class jackets and went. “I remember it was just that spontaneous and naïve.”

The result was five tense hours at the sit-in, widespread news coverage and expulsion from the university (which was reconsidered).

There were some regrets. Drane did not participate in the Woolworth Sit-in. “I wish that I could change that.” Her heart was with the protestors, she said. Ann Phillips McCracken, who was interested in civil rights, did not either. “I’m sorry I didn’t.” She and Drane became friends, but decades after graduating. “I don’t ever remember meeting you on campus,” McCracken said, “and I’m so sorry.”

Other panelists included Betsy Toth, who spoke of sitting at Woolworth later in the protests, with women from Bennett College.

Marylin Lott, who participated in the sit-ins with Dearsley-Vernon and Eugenia Seaman Marks, said, “At the end of the day [at the Woolworth Sit-in], it was a given we were not going to be safe. We all had a prayer,” she recalled. Once safely back to campus, she called her parents to let them know what she’d done. The Washington Post called her parents within 30 minutes of that phone call.

Former city council member Claudette Graves Burroughs-White, who died in 2007, participated in the sit-ins as well, it was noted.

The Reunion event, called “Marking a Movement,” included a talk by Dr. Tara Green about some unsung female heroes – in addition to Rosa Parks – who were arrested in Montgomery for refusing to give up their bus seats. Linda Carter welcomed everyone; Dr. Robert Mayo moderated the forum. Duane Cyrus and Cyrus Art Production presented the dance “Greensboro, Then and Now.”

The highlight was the opportunity to hear from the students of the late 1950s and early 1960s. One current student, as she asked a question during the Q & A period, remarked that she’d done quite a bit of research on them, and it was remarkable to actually be able to ask them a question. Mayo called them aptly “the primary sources.”

More on the experiences of Drane and Tillman, as well as some 1950s correspondence in Archives and the Smart-Tillman professorship, is in the Spring 2010 issue of UNCG Magazine. A story on students’ later efforts to desegregate the Tate Street restaurants and cinema are in the Spring 2010 issue as well.

Visual: From left to right, JoAnne Smart Drane, Ann Dearsley-Vernon, Betsy Toth and Marylin Lott. Ann Phillips McCracken is out of view.