UNCG Campus Weekly

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

Telling it like it was

Audio recordings and transcripts bring history alive. What’s even better is when UNCG students, as well as staff, faculty and fellow Reunion attendees, are able to hear the historic figures firsthand – and ask questions. Such an event was in the EUC’s Multicultural Resource Center on April 13.

University Libraries has interviewed 22 of our campus’ earliest African-American alumnae. Some of these individuals were on hand as more than a dozen alumnae gave their impressions and some memories of their experiences on campus during what one called “very turbulent times” in society.

JoAnne Smart Drane spoke first. She and the late Bettye Tillman were the first African-American students on campus, enrolling in 1956. Drane noted that Jim Crow was alive and well during that period, with separate water fountains and bathrooms for whites and African-Americans. One white student did take Drane “under her wing” during orientation – Adelaide Bennington. “I am appreciative of her friendship.” (An account of her first days on campus is here.)

Dr. Ada Fisher graduated in 1970. “Bad experiences? There were a lot,” she said. But she explained that “Chancellor Ferguson ended up being my friend.” She was on the Chancellor’s Cabinet, she said. He taught her how to prove racism when she encountered it. Several UNCG individuals parted ways with the campus as a result, she explained.

A memorable incident was when the report of Malcolm X’s death came on the news. Some wanted to set a building on fire; she argued against it. They immediately went to Chancellor Ferguson. If you don’t want to go to class, fine, he said. If you want to go to class, that’s better, he added. She completed her degree program, continued her academic career, and ultimately became a doctor.

Myrna Colley-Lee ‘62 grew up in Greensboro and drove protesters to and from the Woolworth protests, but her father did not want her in the protest.

More than one alumna remarked that she almost did not come to this Reunion. Smart has remarked in the past that she stayed away from UNCG for a long time. With the good memories, there are painful memories – that is clear.

Alice Brown ‘65 recalled, “I was on Tate Street with my picket sign.” (See story about the 1963 Tate St. protests.) She became a teacher, and she spoke to the students and attendees about her years here. “What we went through made us activists to this day.”

Insensitivity and ignorance were remembered, as the various individuals spoke, as well as some examples of blatant racism. And many positives, such as friendships and supportive relationships and the excellent education they received, were remembered as well. One student in the audience was struck that the alumnae had had strong feelings for the supportive housekeepers – she and her friends today do too. “They keep you on track,” the student said.

Several times, it was noted that those in attendance were in the midst of history. The students were asked, what legacy will they ultimately leave? One alumna, Jewel Anthony, perhaps said it best: “I am part of a legacy.”

The transcripts for several interviews, part of the University Libraries’ African American Institutional Memory Project, may be found at libcdm1.uncg.edu/oralhisco-oh002.php.

Visual: JoAnne Smart Drane speaks on April 13.
By Mike Harris