UNCG Campus Weekly

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1963 African American graduates share eye-opening memories

041713_Feature_AfricanAmerican60s2Elizabeth Withers Stroud graduated in 1963. When she left, she left her yearbook and her degree behind, she said.

“It was not an experience I wanted to keep in my ‘joy circle’.”

One of the first dozen African American students at Woman’s College (now UNCG), she was the first alumna to speak at last Friday’s Reunion event. Nearly a hundred people attended.

“This is my first time back to campus,” she told everyone. She said that people like Chancellor Brady and Hermann Trojanowski reaching out to her had led her to return – to a place that held mixed memories.

She and the other alumni had toured Coit Hall earlier that day. She recalled being an excited freshman in 1959, a valedictorian of her high school class. As she moved in to Coit Hall – all African American students lived in one part of Coit Hall at that time – a white parent saw her. The parent told their daughter she’d need to move her things out, obviously due to the black students moving in. Stroud felt rejected. She felt isolated. Most professors were not supportive, she said, though there were exceptions.

She told a story: She and a black friend, Gwendolyn Jones, had experience dancing in high school. They were good. They auditioned for the junior class show; they expected to be on the cast list. They were not chosen. They volunteered to do the lighting. They were at every rehearsal. They set the lights – and when it came time for the hoe-down dance the night of the show, they came off their ladder and danced on stage with the classmates who’d been chosen. They did not cause a disruption, she explained. “We wanted to do what we thought we should be able to do – and we did that.” They were not chastised.

Stroud came to see that every person was informed and shaped by their unique backgrounds. She learned everyone was “working out of their own experience.”

“My experience (at UNCG) helped me,” she said. She had a very successful career at the Department of Commerce. She retired as the highest ranking career official there.

She spoke of talking with African American UNCG students in recent years, and finding that things are very different on campus today. Touring the campus that morning, she had seen “such variety, such diversity.” It was “beautiful,” she said.

Alice Russ Littlefield ‘63 was next to speak. “I felt like a complete alien,” she explained. “I was the only black kid (at WC/UNCG) from a rural area.”

Her experience at WC? “It absolutely crushed my self-esteem… I had been an A student.” She eventually did further her education, at graduate school at Howard University.

But she learned important things at this campus. She made the analogy to bodies of water. “It taught me how to get along in the ‘world pond’ – and I think I’ve done a relatively good job of functioning in the ‘world pond’ since.”

During her junior and senior years, she became very interested in the Civil Rights movement. She was arrested more than once during demonstrations in Greensboro, she said.

Before their remarks, Dean Rosann V. Bazirjian provided a welcome. Bonita Brown brought greetings from Chancellor Linda P. Brady. Herman Trojanowski spoke of the African American Institutional Memory Project. Divine Harmony, a UNCG student choral group, sang. Charlotte Williamson served as moderator.

A dozen or so black alumni from the 50’s and 60’s spoke. A few white alumni from the 50’s and 60’s shared their perspectives as well.

African-American alumni from the late 60’s observed that their experience was generally different. Caroline Suezette Brown Roney ‘67 noted that she didn’t see the instances of blatant racism that the earlier alumni described. “You really did pave the way,” she told the earlier alumni gathered near her.

A good number of current African American students asked questions and made observations. The moderator called the students “history in the making.”

The president of the UNCG Neo Black Society, Charnele Walton, a senior and public health major, spoke briefly. “I want to thank all these alumni for paving the way for us.” Her tears as she ended her remarks in mid-sentence, “We’re glad that you’re here –” expressed as much as her words.

Several alumni have passed away. Bettye Tillman died in the 60s, as did Diane Oliver. Gwendolyn Jones Magee died in 2011. These three were noted in the course of the conversations. But those who are telling their stories – through events like this – help carry all these alumni’s history forward.

“Tell your stories. They need to be shared,” JoAnne Smart Drane ‘60 told all the African American alumni present. She and the late Bettye Tillman were the first black students at WC/UNCG, moving into Shaw Residence Hall in 1956.

Drane explained that she too had not returned to campus for many years after graduating – 25 years, she recalled. She had a mixed experience as a student here. But an invitation to speak on campus by the student Neo Black Society – some of whose founders spoke at Friday’s event – finally drew her back to UNCG.

“What made me proudest when I came back to campus? The students,” she said.

She became vice president of the UNCG Alumni Association and later a UNCG Trustee – and saw that, at that time, a displayed collection of the campus’ history included many things, such as the first men on campus, but not the experiences of the early African American students on campus.

She and other alumni worked to change that. “We got the story told properly,” she said.

The UNCG University Libraries’ African American Institutional Memory Project already has many oral interviews – several more will be done in the coming months. Sixteen are available online at http://tinyurl.com/ag674ww

By Mike Harris
Photography by Wesley Brown. Visual on this page: Alice Russ Littlefield, with microphone. Visual on CW home page: Elizabeth Withers Stroud, in red at far right, was another 1963 alumna who spoke.

See related story about two WC students who were a part of the 1963 Tate Street protests.