Invisible no more
One spring night 40 years ago, about 150 students came knocking
on President Leo Jenkins’ front door asking tough questions about
campus desegregation. They wanted to know why Dixie persisted at
football games and why there were no black faculty members.
The moment was tense but lines of communications were opened,
and the path to campus integration continued peacefully.
By Marion Blackburn
iconic photograph, snapped by an SBI agent, captures a moment when minds and history were changed: On the evening of March 26, 1969, a group of angry students surround President Leo Jenkins on the front porch of Dail House, their arms crossed, their faces intent. It was not a social call.
Frustrated by lingering prejudice on campus, the students rose from a meeting and strode across Fifth Street to ask why, nearly seven years after the first black student enrolled at East Carolina, they still endured the playing of Dixie at football games. Why the Confederate battle flag appeared at sponsored events. Why there still were no black professors.
The visitors felt campus desegregation had stalled, and they wanted Jenkins to take action. Because of Jenkins’ natural empathy for their cause, and the students’ own maturity, the face-off ended peacefully that night. The students went home with a promise the university would continue addressing their concerns, and Jenkins kept his word.
That night marked an especially rocky stretch on East Carolina’s road to desegregation, which began in 1962 and perhaps culminated when the first group of African American faculty arrived in 1974.
They were critical years for the university, marking its departure from provincialism into the ways and values of a modern, multicultural university. Behind the transformation were leaders like Jenkins and the late Dr. Andrew A. Best, Greenville’s first African American physician.
Together, they crafted a thoughtful path to desegregation— avoiding the courts, the National Guard and federal intervention. In the weeks after the front porch summit, Jenkins held several high-profile meetings with students. By the next year, no one heard Dixie at games and the battle flag was unwelcome. Though it would be years before African American faculty were hired in significant numbers, the university was on its way toward full desegregation.
First steps I
Ray and Eve Rogers, at home with daughter Adeea
Laura Marie Leary Elliot ’66 of Vanceboro (right) becomes East Carolina’s first black student.
Sixteen African American students are enrolled, including Ray Rogers ’72.
About 50 black students are enrolled. Paul D. Scott is the first black student to receive a football scholarship. Vincent Colbert and Marvin Simpson are the first black players on the basketball team. Elliott becomes the first black graduate.
Dennis Chestnut is selected for the SGA Judiciary Board, the first black in a student leadership role.
Bennie Teel, managing editor of The East Carolinian, is the first black from East Carolina in Who’s Who. Lillian T. Jones and Nellie Ross graduate.
About 90 black students form the Society of United Liberal Students, or SOULS. They come up with a list of demands at a March 3 meeting and present them to President Leo Jenkins. At SOULS ’ next meeting on March 26, 1969, the students decide to march to Dail House to press Jenkins for faster action. In coming weeks Jenkins meets with SOULS several times, then calls the entire student body and faculty together for a convocation in Ficklen Stadium. He urges patience and predicts progress will be slow, but he makes it clear that overt prejudice will no longer be tolerated. Referring to two professors accused of discrimination by SOULS, Jenkins says “one of these is no longer with us, and the other is leaving at the end of this year.”
Black enrollment grows to about 200.
The Admissions Office turns to the SGA Office of Minority Affairs for help writing a recruitment brochure aimed at black high school students. Although brutally frank about the state of race relations on campus—it admits there have been “open displays of prejudice by some whites to some blacks” and that some white professors discriminate against black students— the brochure is highly effective and widely praised. Ken Hammond ’73 ’83 ’85 and other black students establish the Eta Nu chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, ECU’s first black fraternity. Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black sorority, is formed.
Hammond is the first African American elected senior class president.
The first black faculty members arrive on campus, including Ledonia Wright, a community health professor originally from Rockingham County who has had a distinguished career in New York and Boston. She becomes adviser to SOULS.
The old “Y” Hut is converted into the Afro- American Cultural Center. A year later, it is renamed the Ledonia Wright Cultural Center upon Wright’s sudden death.
The separate black and white homecoming queen contests are merged, and Jeri Barnes becomes the school’s first black Homecoming Queen.
Natalear Collins (right) and Brenda Klutz become the first African American graduates of the Brody School of Medicine.
n 1962, a single African American student arrived on campus, Laura Marie Leary Elliot ’66. Two years later, a hopeful class of 16 other black students arrived with a sense that they weren’t just going to learn history, they were going to write it.
“We stepped out on faith,” says Ray Rogers ’72 of Greenville. “If you live in a dorm with only four blacks and you walk across campus and you’re always in class by yourself, it takes a lot of inward peace and feeling good about yourself. Everywhere you went, there was a culture of 16 versus 10,000.”
He later met and married another dynamic African American student, Eve (Everlena) Clark ’69, who arrived on campus in 1967. Rogers, a financial administrator, today works as a consultant, and his wife, a retired juvenile justice administrator, has been recognized with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine award.
“We had a sense that there was a movement afoot concerning civil rights,” Eve Rogers says. Though without a lot of money, she says, her parents were keenly aware of the value of a good education for their daughter. She felt inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King to take part of the change happening around her. “We felt that however small, we were part of it,” she says.
Meanwhile, out of the public eye, Jenkins and Dr. Best worked to accelerate desegregation. They knew strong forces beyond the university opposed them. They also knew what happened further south, where armed intervention ushered desegregation onto campuses in Mississippi and Georgia in the early 1960s.
The two men held deep personal commitments to racial equality. Dr. Best befriended the trailblazing African American students, and tirelessly advocated for them. Jenkins instructed staff and faculty to welcome and support black students, seeing to it they received financial aid.
That assistance was critical, because though they were high achievers, they likely could not have afforded college. For campus pioneers like Ray Rogers, an ordinary walk across campus took enormous inner strength. It was common to hear racial slurs whispered and sometimes shouted at him. He recalls a rally by the Ku Klux Klan at the site of today’s Minges Coliseum, and says his classmates were aware of their unspoken boundaries.
“Downtown was not a place you were welcomed,” he says.
When Rogers returned to ECU from overseas military service in 1970, he noticed quite a few changes. He no longer heard Dixie at sporting events; he didn’t feel so alone. By that time, about 200 black students were enrolled. Second wave I
n 1969, however, the mood was grim. Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated the year before and racial tensions were high throughout the nation. Black students numbered about 90 on a campus they felt was still largely segregated.
Student William Lowe was quoted as saying in 1969, “When you see your race being cast in the role of invisible people, it gives you a feeling of inferiority.”
There was work to be done. To unify their calls for progress, the students created SOULS, or Society of United Liberal Students. They developed a list of requests and in a dramatic move, presented them to Jenkins on his front porch on March 26, 1969.
While by the late 1960s most universities had successfully desegregated, memories of the beatings, high-pressure water hoses and imprisonments could not have been far from the students’ minds that night. For them, Jenkins was a lightning rod.
“If we were to be a true part of the campus, we needed to have our ideas heard,” says Luther Moore ’72, who was among the 150 or so students facing Jenkins that night. “One of the first concerns was with playing Dixie at football games…and displaying Confederate flags at school sponsored events.
“Our job was to try to make the student body understand how we felt, why we didn’t like the playing of that song and what it stood for. It brings thoughts of slavery and Jim Crowism, those kinds of things that occurred after slavery was abolished.”
Today, Moore works as a guidance counselor at Clinton High School and, as the county’s only African American male counselor, is still something of a pathfinder. He vividly remembers those heady days. “We were a small group of African Americans and bonded,” he says. “We became a group I could socialize with, and feel part of something. I am humble, but I knew we were pioneers, because there were very few of us. I felt like I had to be my best. Academically, I didn’t set the world on fire, but I was successful.”
The students weren’t alone that night on the front porch of Dail House. Watching from the shadows were campus police, state troopers and an agent of the State Bureau of Investigation, who took the historic image. In the original photograph stored in the University Archives, you can see numbers written on several faces, an apparent attempt by the SBI agent to identify those involved.
“We were aware of the fact that we were involved in events where there were people taking photographs,” says Roosevelt Morton ’84 of Raleigh, who works with the state Department of Public Instruction. “We didn’t know who the people were, but it wouldn’t have been a stretch to imagine that it was an official arm of the government.”
As a result of that meeting, Jenkins initiated a series of roundtable discussions and eventually held a special convocation. Morton remembers those meetings. “He gave us the opportunity to sit down and talk about what was on our minds,” he says. “I think that was an initial step. But we also weren’t sure of the changes that would result, after our meeting. We didn’t see immediate change.”
In his convocation, Jenkins asked students for patience during those turbulent times. “We will settle what we can here, but on matters requiring a broader consensus, we must be patient and we must take into consideration that we do not get everything may be taken as a statement for the maintenance of the status quo in a time of change. But you are well aware that I do not have the reputation of a defender of the status quo.”
First black Greeks I
|Dr. Andrew Best; President Leo Jenkins; John B. Clarke, national president of Alpha Phi Alpha; and John E. Burke, the fraternity's regional director, at the official inauguration of East Carolina's first black fraternity in 1971. |
n 1969, Ken Hammond ’73 ’83 ’85 was among the change leaders who helped establish ECU’s first black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. These days Hammond pastors Union Baptist Church in Durham, a congregation of more than 5,100 members.
He remembers how Dr. Best successfully negotiated a change in the rule barring students who received financial aid from joining a social organization, which effectively banned black fraternities and sororities. “That rule was suggested as a means of keeping blacks from joining white sororities and fraternities,” Hammond recalls. “Dr. Best had to negotiate with Dr. Jenkins to have it changed.”
It’s no surprise that Dr. Best, himself a member of APA, paid the charter’s start-up fees. The university’s first black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, was founded in 1973.
Hammond became senior class president and later worked at the university for many years before leaving his post in 1991 as associate director of student activities to assume leadership of the Durham church.
During 2008 Homecoming festivities, he was named an Outstanding Alumni, one of the university’s highest honors. “From day one I was involved in campus life, and those are memories that I cherish,” he says. “ECU will always be a very special place. It provided an atmosphere to excel.”
A legacy for tomorrow I
n 1974, the university hired several African American faculty, including Ledonia Wright, a community health professor originally from Rockingham County with a distinguished career in New York and Boston. She briefly served as adviser to SOULS before her death in 1976. In 2006, the university awarded the Jarvis Medal, its highest service award, posthumously to Dr. Best, who died in 2004. Ray and Eve Rogers today are proud of their daughter, Adeea Rogers ’05, for many reasons, but high on the list is a passion for leadership.
You could say it runs in the family. Adeea Rogers works at the university union as an event planner, but she’s carrying on her parents’ legacy as staff adviser to the Black Student Union—the grandchild organization of SOULS. “I tell my students stories about my parents, and remind them they can learn from others,” Adeea Rogers says. “We have immense pride in ECU and the strides it has made. It’s important for students to know that history.” Below is the text of the story about the front-porch summit
published in The East Carolinian, published March 27, 1969:
Time Versus Tension
One hundred-fifty or more blacks and whites left the front porch of President Jenkins last night, after pressing a yes-or-no answer to "Do you support the demands or not?" Jenkins would obviously rather have qualified the answer, but expectant faces and pressuring voices got an affirmation. The shuffle of feet on pavement muffled what sounded like an "...in part" at the end.
SOULS opened up their regular meeting last night with a sizable contingent of white guests in support of their demands. Several questions were raised and dispensed with in further clarification of the demands. Someone asked what has been done, and the evening's activities took shape.
Many blacks have expressed ill-will over progress on the demands, remembering last year's "requests" and the ineffective Race Relations Board. SOULS leaders suggested a walk to the house of the man who should know what's been done or what can be done.
Consequently, President Jenkins answered his doorbell to find a lawn full of faces, though hardly with surprise since the police pulled up at the same time. SOULS president Johnny Williams greeted Jenkins and opened the evenings dialogue with an elboration on the last question of the meeting.
Jenkins mainly listed several things his study committees were hoping to do, i.e., the first two supervisory positions opened will be given to black maintenance workers (now employed only as laborers), and a proposed Faculty Senate committee "to take care of any rudeness on the part of the faculty."
Also mentioned was the search for more black athletes and two black professors Jenkins says have been contracted.
Comments from the blacks seemed to indicated they were hearing nothing new, as the demand for "concrete evidence" echoed stronger each time. Every instance of talk about "legal channels" or "the machinery" invoked cries for a stronger guiding hand by the president.
Jenkins claimed to have no dictatorial powers, as an employee of the state and a worker under the direction of the Board of Trustees. Frequently unanswered questions of "what powers do you have?" netted the impression, as one black student put it, that "he's done what little he intends to."
However two promises were made- a convocation on the demands will be held "soon" by Jenkins, and he will arrange for black leaders to speak at the next Board of Trustees meeting. Since the next meeting is not scheduled until May, Jenkins agreed that it was within his power to request and emegency session.
Taking her cue from talk of the Board of Trustees and Robert Morgan, one black co-ed asked, "If as president of this university, you cannot meet the demands of so small a group of students, how as governor do you intend to meet them?"
The meeting that had begun with most of Jenkins' visitors off his wide gracious front porch progressed with the circle closing tighter around the front door. Normal traffic was enough to make hearing hard, but the influx of campus policemen, state troopers, and at least one SBI agent made things a bit more tense. One black student tersely thanked Jenkins for "your confidence in us."
Things drew to a peak and a close as the demand for an answer to " do you support our cause?" grew more committed. Handshakes and thank-you's were exchanged, while the question of time vs. tension still hung thick in the air. No one could answer it.