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N.C. State looks back to its first black students

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by Justin Carrington, NC State University

ncstate_logoIn fall 1953, two students named Robert Lee Clemons and Hardy Liston, Jr. enrolled at what was then known as North Carolina State College, as graduate students. However, something set them apart from the other students that made up their class.

Like their fellow peers, they had undergraduate degrees. They were eager to learn and continue their education, but they were black.

Three years later, four other black men — Ed Carson, Irwin Holmes, Walter Holmes, and Manuel Crockett — followed suit by enrolling as the school’s first black undergraduates.    

“To me, their legacy is one that will always live on,” Tracey Ray, Director of Multicultural Student Affairs, said. “The most amazing thing, however, is something that any of those six men will tell you. They didn’t come to N.C. State to make a statement or to change the world. They came here to get an education.”

To some, this humbleness is what made their actual achievement so great.

“They wanted to get an education and have the same civil rights as everyone else,” Natalie Spencer, a graduate student, said. “Although they didn’t want to make a statement, in taking that stand and saying ‘I want to come to this university just like that other person down the street,’ they did.”

Their contributions did not stop there. In 1957, Crockett and Irwin Holmes became the first black athletes to participate in the Atlantic Coast Conference, opening the doors for student-athletes to come generations down the road.

“They not only wanted to come to this university to be students,” Spencer said, “but they wanted to be a part of the community.”

They showed that they were just like everyone else, except for the fact that they weren’t – they were black men living in a time that was filled with hatred.

During the times in which these six students attended NCSU, the scope of the world was simple: everything was black or white. In most parts of the nation, public facilities were still segregated, even after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Raleigh, itself, proved to be no exception. However, according to Ray, the campus of NCSU did.

“Unlike some institutions that were integrating at the time, our students’ experience was rather positive,” Ray said. “Of course there were a few stories, but for the most part, their experience was positive. That’s a legacy I would like more people to know about.”

In fact, it was at this time that many black people rose to prominence.

In 1962, Vivian Henderson became the first black faculty member when he was hired as a visiting professor. Seven years later, Eric Moore became the University’s first black Student Senate President.

However, the turmoil on display outside of the NCSU community caused many black students, who felt alienated, to seek the accompaniment of others like themselves.

For this reason, the idea of a gathering place for students of color was hatched.

For a while, a basement of a local YMCA building fulfilled this need for a gathering place. Students were even welcomed into the house of the late August Witherspoon, was one of the first black members of NCSU’s faculty. After the building was destroyed in 1974, however, students pursued other options as far as a cultural center.

In 1975, the University issued a response to student’s request: a black student union in the Print Shop, an old building on West Dunn Avenue.

Ray, who was a student at NCSU during the early nineties, remembers the place well.

“We actually called it the sweatbox,” Ray said. “It had no air conditioning and no ventilation system.”

For reasons like these, Ray and her fellow classmates and faculty members ignited a push for a new and improved center nearly 13 years after the original conception of the idea.

In addition to Ray, there also was a young man by the name of Kevin Howell. Howell was no stranger to enacting change. In fact, in 1987 he became the University’s first black Student Body President.

Eventually, all the work paid off. In 1991, the doors of the African American Cultural Center were opened. However, as one may expect, there were still enormous hardships to face.

“There were a lot of challenges,” Ray said. “The center had a director, but it had no staff. There were like ten books in the library. Even though there was a center, there was no budget. It wasn’t really set up to be sustainable.”

As a result of this, Ray spent a considerable amount of her time rallying students and faculty, as well as working with members of the administration to establish a budget for the center.

After nearly three months of protesting by students and faculty, a budget was put in place. Three years later, however, the center would face another change — this time for the better. In 1995, the man who had welcomed students into his own home for years was honored in a way that neither he, nor any other black student or faculty member at NCSU, had been honored. University officials decided to name a building after Witherspoon.

Today, Witherspoon Student Center remains the first and only building on campus named in honor of a black person, but, Ray attributes the University’s diversity back to the original black students who enrolled in the 50s.

“I don’t think we can thank them enough,” Ray said. “By all means, we stand on their shoulders, and I think that we should show them great respect for what they did.”

According to Ray, one way to do this is through the continuation of their legacy through improving the enrollment of black students.

According to the University’s enrollment numbers for the past semester, more than 2,400 of enrolled students identify as black. This is an increase from 1,600 students in 1982 and 220 in 1972.

This equates to roughly 8 percent of the overall student population. In context, this percentage is four points less than the percentage of blacks as reported in the latest Census.

“N.C. State has the largest African American enrollment by numbers of any non-HBCU (historically black) college or university in North Carolina,” Ray said. “But, I would love to see our enrollments grow.”

According to Ray, the students who make up these numbers represent the same legacy to which they are indebted.

“This history is still young, which means we are still living the legacy.” Ray said.

Jamillia Lackey, a freshman in mathematics, considers herself a part of this growing legacy.

“I feel proud just to know that I represent an exception to what is ordinary,” Lackey said. “I’m also proud that we are able to continue this legacy for students who are coming so that they will have even more opportunities than we do.”

Another part of this legacy comes with the existence of organizations created to advance black students, such as the Peer Mentors Program, said Lynnette Neal, a freshman in middle grades language art and social studies education.

“These organizations are very important, because they give you a support system,” Neal said. “Because we are a minority on campus, it’s nice to know that there are people with the same interests as you who are trying to better themselves.”

Neal, a member of the Association of African American Student Educators, also believes that organizations play an enormous role in growing bonds that exist between black students.

“These organizations make our community stronger by working together,” Neal said. “Usually, we aren’t able to see each other in large numbers at one setting, but these organizations bring us together and bring unity within our culture.”

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Written by Symphony

February 28, 2009 at 8:07 am

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