African Americans at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1892-1971

University of North Carolina at Greensboro - University Libraries

An exhibit tracing the history of African American faculty, staff, and students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), from its opening as the State Normal and Industrial School in 1892 until 1971.

African Americans at State Normal
The State Normal and Industrial School (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) opened its doors in October 1892. The student body was limited to white women. But nearly all of the support staff  (cooks, maids, janitors, handymen) were African American. There were as many as 42 African American support staff employees in the 1894-1895 school year. Many of these employees lived in a small segregated neighborhood several blocks west of campus. 

Henderson Faribault was the first head cook at State Normal. He was later assisted by and then succeeded by his son Edmund.

A list of the numbers of African Americans employed by State Normal in various service roles, including their pay rate. While some are listed by name, most are not.

Photograph of an unidentified woman cleaning laundry at the State Normal and Industrial School. Sadly, the names of many of the African Americans who worked at State Normal have been lost to history.

Campus dining hall employees working in the kitchen in 1929.

Ezekiel "Zeke" Robinson
Ezekiel "Zeke" Robinson was hired by State Normal president Charles Duncan McIver in 1892 to manage the African American support staff. He also performed numerous tasks that were critical to the function of the school, including ringing the school bell, waiting table at state dinners, delivering the campus mail, and serving as porter for three college presidents. Ill health forced Robinson to retire in 1944 after a 52-year career. On December 1, 1960, Ezekiel Robinson died at a local nursing home at the age of 93. He was the last surviving member of the faculty and staff from the first year of the State Normal.

In the 1913 yearbook, students described Ezekiel Robinson as "the power behind the throne," noting his great responsibility for the operation of the school.

Ezekiel Robinson returned to campus numerous times after his official retirement in 1944, typically at the annual Founder's Day celebration in October.

Jim Crow and debates over facilities
Prior to the 1950s, most the discussion on campus related to race relations focused primarily on access to and use of campus buildings and resources by African Americans. As a public institution, the facilities at the college were bound by the state's restrictive Jim Crow laws, limiting African American access to public facilities. As early as February 1929, administrators were discussing use of the College Library by students from neighboring North Carolina A&T College, a historically black institution. 

College vice president Walter C. Jackson writes to president Julius I. Foust requesting that African American students at North Carolina A&T be allowed to borrow books from the college library.

Foust responds to Jackson's request, noting that he will consult with the campus physician to determine "any danger that may arise from disease" in lending books to African American students.

Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, founder of the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, NC (just east of Greensboro), wrote many letters to leaders at the college, requesting that her students be allowed to attend cultural events on campus. Her requests were repeated denied due to the strict Jim Crow laws mandating segregating in public facilities.

Debates over library use by African American students continued into the early 1950s. The library was open in allowing use, but Chancellor Edward Kidder Graham sought a formal policy specifically restricting African-American use of the library facilities.

The desegregation debate at Woman's College
Starting in 1950, public discourse on segregation practices became more common. On the Woman's College of the University of North Carolina (now UNCG) campus, a number of faculty members were quite active in encouraging desegregation – of the school and of local businesses. WC student leaders also spoke out against segregation, with The Carolinian in 1952 proclaiming segregation to be “legally, morally, and practically wrong.”

Warren Ashby, a philosophy professor, publicly endorsed school desegregation in a letter to the Greensboro Daily News and led a faculty council resolutions supporting the desegregation of UNC campuses in 1955. He also organized a group of faculty members who regularly met for lunch at the YMCA with faculty members from A&T.

Desegregation of Woman's College
In 1955, three men successfully sued the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for admission to their undergraduate program. With this court decision, the Woman's College followed suit. In the Fall of 1956, JoAnne Smart and Bettye Ann Davis Tillman arrived on the Woman's College campus as the first African American students to be admitted to the institution. 

The acceptance of African American students at the previously all-white Woman's College received much attention in the local and regional press.

Greensboro Sit Ins, February 1960
About three and a half years after Smart and Tillman began their studies at Woman's College, the civil rights movement came front and center to Greensboro. On Monday, February 1, 1960, four North Carolina A&T students staged a sit-in at the lunch counter in the Woolworth’s store downtown. By Friday, the original four had grown to over 300 students from several local campuses. Among this group were several WC students -- white and black. This caused quite an uproar not only on campus but across the South, as news of white female students participating in the protests was widely published in newspapers.

Chancellor Gordon Blackwell was opposed to the sit-ins, and addressed the university at large on Tuesday, February 9 (the fourth day of the sit ins), expressing his concern over the possibility of violence and of setting back the civil rights movement, and also for the employees and economic welfare of the dime store chains.

A parent of one of the white Woman's College students who participated in the Sit Ins writes to Chancellor Blackwell in defense of her daughter's actions.

This video, produced in 1990, recounts WC student participation in the 1960 Sit Ins through interviews with former students, voice-overs, local tv footage, photographs, and reenactments of the events.

Tate Street Desegregation Movement, 1963
While a number of businesses in downtown Greensboro desegregated in 1960, Tate Street (an area just east of the UNCG campus) and many other parts of Greensboro were not. In 1963, a second round of protests began. At Woman's College, these protests focused on Tate Street, with students arguing that the college needed to exert its authority on local businesses and demand equal treatment for all. As the African American students wrote, "the decision to accept Negro students to Woman’s College implies the decision to give them your full moral support, not just a limited, partial support." 

African American students wrote to Woman's College Student Government Association President Carol Furey requesting SGA support in a boycott of segregated Tate Street businesses.

While WC Chancellor Otis Singletary felt he had any authority over the private businesses on Tate Street, he did meet with many business owners and request that all students be served. He also warned that a student-led protest might be forthcoming.

Karen Lynn Parker, who attended Woman's College from 1961 to 1963, recalls the pickets and protests of segregated businesses on Tate Street in 1963.

Black Power Forum of 1967
On November 1-3, 1967, UNCG played host to a controversial Black Power Forum, organized in large part by the Student Government Association to “inform students and faculty members of this movement and its actions and to give us a chance to discuss Black Power, its history, its political and social implications for us and the nation.” The forum was organized around three topics: “Black Power past and present,” “the ghetto,” and “Black Power and the self-image of the Negro.” Speakers from across the country were brought in for presentations and discussions held in Cone Ballroom.
Founding of the Neo-Black Society
UNCG's Neo-Black Society (NBS) was established in 1968 with three major goals: "1) to help in voter registration drives, 2) to work with the Greensboro United Tutorial Service (a community group aimed at connecting college students with community educational efforts), and 3) to try to help establish an Afro-American history course on this campus." From the outset, there were tensions on campus related to the NBS; some students accused NBS of reverse racism. But in 1971, the organization officially recognized by the Student Government Association and given office and lounge space in the student union.
African American faculty and the founding of Black Studies
One of the Neo-Black Society's stated goals was the establishment of a Black Studies program at UNCG. There were calls for such a program at least as early as 1968, when NBS was first established. The year before, in 1967, UNCG hired its first African American faculty member, Ernestine Small from the School of Nursing. While there was considerable discussion of a black studies program through the 1970s and a number of departments across campus joined the history department in offering courses focused on African American history and culture, an official interdisciplinary minor in Black Studies was not offered until 1982. 

Odessa Patrick was the first African American hired as an academic staff member. She came to Woman's College in 1959 as a laboratory technician in the Biology Department, where she was responsible for preparing and managing laboratory equipment for biology class use. She was promoted to Instructor in 1968. While most were welcoming, one faculty member did tell her that he didn’t think the college was “quite ready for hiring Negroes in non-traditional jobs.”

Ernestine Small was the first African-American appointed as a full-time faculty at UNCG, joining the faculty of the School of Nursing in 1967. She worked at Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro before beginning graduate school at Catholic University.

Dr. Joseph Himes spent 23 years at North Carolina Central University as a professor of sociology prior to joining the faculty at UNCG. In 1969, he became the first African American faculty member at UNCG to hold tenure when we was named a professor in the sociology department.

From the staff of the UNCG University Libraries
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This exhibit was created by staff in the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives and the Electronic Resources and Information Technology departments of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro University Libraries.

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