By Marion Blackburn
The rest of the nation was beginning a long and often violent journey to racial integration when a gifted musician named Hubert Walters, along with a handful of African-American students, quietly made history in 1962 by enrolling at East Carolina without incident.
Walters longed to be a part of the college in a way his parents could not—as an equal. Growing up on Reade Street, he passed the campus almost daily feeling he belonged there but knowing he could not attend. So, he followed the only path to higher education open to him at the time by attending N.C. Central University, from where he graduated in 1955.
In the early 1960s, then-chancellor Leo Jenkins and others set out to end campus segregation without a court order. Jenkins’ plan was to admit a few minority students at the time. Among those recommended to him was Walters, who had completed a hitch in the Army and was director of music at E.E. Smith High School in Fayetteville. Another in that group was Laura Leary, ECU’s first African-American undergraduate student.
Like all School of Music hopefuls, Walters first had to prove he deserved the honor through an audition. He perfectly notated eight bars of a Bach chorale by ear. Three years later, Walters was among the first African-Americans to obtain a degree from ECU and the first from the School
After a successful career in academia, including the past 24 years at Boston College, Walters, 73, enjoyed a jubilant homecoming this spring. The university gospel choir
he directs gave concerts at ECU and at Sycamore Hill Baptist Church. The Imani singers (the word is Swahili for faith) is composed of about 40 students from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Looking back on his days as a student at East Carolina, Walters believes he contributed more than his musical abilities. “I felt I was bringing something to ECU, an experience that neither the faculty nor the students ever had,” he says. “I felt I knew about them, but they knew nothing about me.”
He relied on humor to put others at ease during those awkward moments, such as the day a classmate approached him cautiously. “He said, ‘I’ve never even touched the hand of a black person,’” Walters recalls. “So I grabbed his hand and slapped it onto mine and said, ‘Do you feel any different?’ We laughed.”
“We have a tendency to fear what we don’t understand,” Walters says of those times. “But at ECU there was no hostility.” Spending time with students who didn’t always accept him helped Walters find common ground with others. Eventually, his classmates and college family warmed to him and to the changes taking place.
“My family, my church and my school gave me the balance that I’ve been able to carry with me,” he says. “We were all nurtured by the triangular experience of the home, the school and the church. That was very helpful to me because there were high expectations.”
Walters’ ability to energize others vaulted him to the front lines of the civil rights struggle during the 1960s and 1970s.
While on faculty at Harvard University, he helped found the African-American studies program and led the Kuumba Singers, who took part in campus protests. While in the Army he was the only African-American chaplain’s assistant at Fort Meade, Md. He was chosen a Martin Luther King Jr. Fellow by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and studied at Boston University, where he received his doctorate. Left: Dean Jeffrey Elwell (center) welcomes Rev. Walters and members of Boston College's Imani Choir.
He joined the faculty of Boston College in 1982, earning its artistic achievement award in 2004. Today, he is a popular lecturer in music and African-American studies. His courses, Rhythm and Blues in America and Jazz in America, are always filled.
“I represent a generation who are able to look back and forward,” he says. “I was the first black in many situations in my life.”
Walters affectionately remembers his father, Herman E. Walters, as an elegant tenor whom he compares to the late Roland Hayes. The son of slaves, Hayes rose to prominence with the Fisk Jubilee Singers and eventually sang for the Queen of England. He was the first African-American concert singer to win widespread acclaim.
Walters attended the only performance Hayes gave in Greenville, a touching concert with a bittersweet epilogue. “He performed a group of French, Italian and German lieder. At the end, he sang a group of spirituals. He came to the edge of the stage, folded his hands and assumed a striking pose, and sang, Were You There. You could hear a pin drop.”
That night Hayes had to spend the night in a private home because hotels would not rent rooms to minorities. Walters himself later became one of the first African-Americans to stay in a Greenville hotel.
The father of four, Walters has kept in touch with many of his old Greenville friends, including Sallye Streeter, financial secretary for Sycamore Hill Baptist Church for more than 30 years.
“We grew up together,” she says of Walters. “We started taking music at the same time, from the same gentleman. We’ve had a lot of cultural experiences. We went through a lot of things there.”
Walters, too, treasures those days and the nurturing he received in the South despite the racial barriers he grew up with.
“Most of my students today are from the North or from out of the country. They have no idea what the South is like,” he says. “I explain to them that blacks and whites are more close in the South than they realize. And everyone greets you. They’re friendly. When you come into a store, they speak to you.
“Boston is not like that,” he says. “I never appreciated my Southern upbringing more than when I came here. I miss the warmth of the South. In conversation, in seeing each other and in speaking. It’s amazing.”