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Race Relations at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro


The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) was established in 1891 as the State Normal and Industrial School, a college for women where coursework focused on business, domestic science, and teaching. In 1932, the school became the Woman's College of the University of North Carolina (WCUNC, or "WC" for short), a name that reflected a somewhat broader educational mission. Male students were first admitted in 1964, and in preparation, WC became The University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1963, the name it retains to this day.1

Located just west of downtown Greensboro, the university has always been an integral part of the city's civic life, educating many of its citizens and also providing a cultural context and performing arts center for residents. Students have also contributed greatly to the economic vitality of the city as a source of income for retailers, housing providers, and others. There is also a tradition of civic involvement by students, many of whom already have ties to the community upon entering the university.


Edward Kidder Graham, Jr., Chancellor of WCUNC from 1950-1956, has been described as "neither a specialist in race relations nor a visible champion of Negro rights", although his actions paint him as something of a sympathizer.2 Prior to Graham's tenure, issues of race relations at WC had largely centered on allowing use of the college's facilities, particularly the library, by non-white members of the community. Graham had allowed limited use of these facilities, a procedure instituted by his predecessor, Walter Clinton Jackson. While a faculty council resolution instigated by Professor Warren Ashby had called for it in 1955, desegregation of the student body itself was not really an issue until 1956, when court order required that all three University of North Carolina campuses, including WC, begin desegregating all their facilities. Graham, who had weathered several other race relations controversies during his six years as chancellor, did not see the first black students admitted to WC; he departed to become dean of liberal arts at Boston University several months prior to their entrance.

In September 1956, Bettye Ann Davis Tillman and Elizabeth JoAnne Smart (Drane) became the first two black students at WC. Acting Chancellor Willam Whately Pierson welcomed the two by reminding a conference of student leaders that they were admitted solely due to a federal court ruling and "not by the consent of the governed or by the will of the people." Despite Pierson's assurances of "just and fair treatment" the two were isolated residentially within one wing of a dormitory where they were the only two residents and thus would not have to share a bathroom with white students. It would take eleven years for the residence halls to be desegregated. 3

Perhaps due in part to their residential segregation, Tillman and Smart both reported feeling somewhat isolated at first, but they were met with little overt hostility on campus and ultimately befriended students and faculty members and began participating in extracurricular activities. However, they noted awkwardness in mixed-race dating and the lack of integrated social opportunities in Greensboro. A feeling of isolation was commonly cited by other black students at WC in a 1975 survey of thirty-one students, which suggested that racial tensions remained on the campus of what had by then become UNCG. This trend may not be surprising given the slow pace of integration at the school. By 1963, when UNCG became a coeducational institution, only twenty-nine black students were enrolled, and as late as 1979, fewer than ten percent of students were black.4

As late as 1968, the historically white UNC campuses had black enrollment of only 1.7%. In 1970, the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare sent letters to the UNC system's three "main" campuses (UNC-Chapel Hill, UNCG, and North Carolina State University) suggesting that a statewide desegregation order might be forthcoming. Additional letters were sent to other institutions within the system shortly afterward, and there was some suggestion that UNCG might be merged with nearby North Carolina A&T University, a historically black campus. Several years of litigation ensued, ultimately concluding in a 1981 consent decree in which the UNC system agreed to step up recruitment efforts and increase minority enrollment at all campuses, with a goal of 15% white enrollment at historically black schools and of 10.6 black enrollment at historically-white institutions.5

Campus Issues

Desegregation was just one of many controversial social issues facing college campuses nationwide in the 1960s and 1970s, and UNCG was no exception. In addition to numerous protests against the Vietnam War, students were involved in campus and community issues related to the civil rights movement and to militancy in general. Certain issues were particularly contentious at UNCG given its somewhat conservative southern surroundings and student backgrounds. At the same time, the university was dealing with a separate set of controversies arising from its 1963 transition into a coeducational institution. In fact, one of the first black male students at UNCG stated that his sex was more of an issue than his race when he first entered the university in 1965.6

Among the major race-related campus controversies faced by the UNCG community were the 1967 Black Power Forum held by the Student Government Association (SGA), the 1969 food service workers' strike, a 1973 funding controversy surrounding the Neo-Black Society, and the creation of a Black Studies program at UNCG.

Black Power Forum, 1967

On November 1-3, 1967, the SGA sponsored a Black Power Forum, one of a series of programs on controversial issues that also included drug use, urban issues, and the Vietnam War. The Black Power Forum, which included panel discussions and lectures on aspects of the burgeoning Black Power movement, was the subject of statewide controversy. It was criticized by some, including Lieutenant Governor Robert Scott, for providing a forum for "revolutionary" figures, such as Howard Fuller, a controversial movement leader who had recently been appointed to the faculty at UNC Chapel Hill. There was also some discussion in the news media and elsewhere that most of the attendees were not UNCG students; in addition, several members of the Ku Klux Klan were present, but were denied admission by UNCG campus police. In the face of criticism, Chancellor James Sharbrough Ferguson defended the educational value of the forum, if not all the sentiments expressed at it. 7His public and vocal defense earned him considerable support within the university community.

ARA Strike, 1969

In 1964, UNCG eliminated its in-house food service program and contracted with ARA-Slater (now Aramark), a national provider, to provide its on-campus food service. This relationship would last for forty-five years, but not without controversy. The first strike against ARA-Slater occurred later in 1964, when black full-time employees objected to a proposed pay cut, even though they were already being paid only ten cents an hour more than primarily white part-time student employees.8

By 1969, tensions had increased. Following strikes at UNC-Chapel Hill and at North Carolina A&T, ARA-Slater employees at UNCG-including some who were students at A&T-went out on strike on March 26. The issues included the hourly wage, lack of overtime pay, sick and holiday pay, performance reviews, and dismissal procedures. A flyer noted that the "demands must be met as soon as possible but no later than immediately."9 While not overtly related to race, the workers' grievances underscored the differences in opportunities and expectation afforded to the university's primarily white students and the primarily black staff that served them. As Chancellor Ferguson would later recall, "Initially, the strike was not a black and white issue, but in time an element of race conflict was involved because most of the workers were black." 10

Following the walkout, the SGA voted to support the striking workers and to call for a boycott of the cafeteria. In a controversial move, SGA also voted to use student funds to hire an attorney to represent the striking workers. On the night of March 31, a crowd of approximately 1200 students, including activists from A&T, demanded that Chancellor Ferguson answer their demands; Nelson Johnson either threatened to throw bricks or set fire to the chancellor's residence, according to some reports. 11Ferguson agreed to address the campus the next day, at which time he stated that he must remain neutral. Behind the scenes, however, Ferguson was involved in the negotiations between ARA-Slater and well-respected black attorney Henry Frye. In the end, ARA-Slater offered the striking workers even more than they had requested, and the strike ended April 2. Despite calls for competitive bidding, ARA-Slater's contract was renewed for the following year.

Neo-Black Society Controversy, 1973

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 GUTS, and 3) to try to help establish an Afro-American history course on this campus."12

From the outset, there were tensions; some students accused NBS of reverse racism, and there is some suggestion that the organization "bullied" the campus media to obtain more favorable coverage.13 Despite this, NBS was recognized by SGA and was eventually given office and lounge space in the student union following a petition drive in 1971. By 1973, however, the allocation of student funds to NBS was questioned by several white students who claimed that the organization was in violation of the SGA constitution and by-laws because it discouraged white membership and was allegedly affiliated with a national militant organization. The SGA committee on classification of organizations found no merit in the allegations, but the matter was taken up by the full student senate anyway, and on March 27, the senate voted to strip NBS of its funding and status as a recognized student organization.

In the following days, a peaceful sit-in was held in the university administration building, and there was considerable discussion of the issue in both campus and community media. In response to an appeal of the senate decision, Chancellor Ferguson convened a faculty council that ultimately recommended reversing the decision and restoring status to NBS due to procedural issues and faulty evidence. Ferguson agreed and did so, prompting several members of SGA to appeal his decision to the board of trustees, saying that the chancellor did not have this authority involving student organizations. In a controversial (and questionably legal) move, SGA retained legal counsel for the appeal, but the UNCG board of trustees later ruled that the chancellor had acted appropriately. On April 30, five UNCG students filed suit in U.S. District Court requesting the NBS be forced to integrate or be barred from receiving state funds.14

On October 2, 1973, the SGA committee on classification of organizations approved a new constitution for NBS which contained wording stressing that the group was open to all UNCG students without regard to race. Funding was restored, ending both the SGA's concerns and potential legal challenges.

Black Studies Program

One of NBS'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 established. While there was faculty support for such a program (tempered by a "lack of student interest"), there was also some resistance.15 While there was considerable discussion of a black studies program through the 1970s, an official interdisciplinary minor was not offered until 1982. Specific departmental courses were first offered in 1986, and the renamed African American Studies undergraduate degree program made its debut in 2006.16

Community Involvement

WC/UNCG students were also involved in community issues within the city of Greensboro, including the 1960 and 1963 sit-ins.

1960 Greensboro Sit-ins

Eugenia Seaman Marks moves into UNCG, August 1958
Listen to Eugenia Seaman Marks
describe her experience.

On Thursday, February 4, 1960, the third day of the sit-ins, three WC students- Ann Dearsley, Eugenia "Genie" Seaman, and Marilyn Lott-joined students from A&T and Greensboro College in the demonstration at Greensboro's F.W. Woolworth store. The sit-ins had begun on Monday, February 1, when four A&T students sat at the store's segregated lunch counter and requested service. After conferring with the three students the following day, Chancellor Gordon W. Blackwell convinced them not to continue participating in the protest.17 Blackwell was opposed to the sit-ins, and addressed the university at large on Tuesday, February 9, 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. Blackwell urged WC students not to participate in the protests, citing the possibility of a "chain reaction" of hostility due to WC student involvement.18 Blackwell also worked behind the scenes in the first days of the demonstrations to arrange a two-week "truce" announced on Saturday, February 7.19

1963 Sit-ins and Tate Street Protests

A second round of sit-ins escalated in Greensboro in the spring of 1963, primarily targeting restaurants and theatres. This new wave of sit-ins hit the students of WC a bit closer to home. On March 13, 1963, SGA passed a resolution urging Chancellor Otis Singletary to "use his authority and influence as a college official" to convince owners of two restaurants-the Apple House and the Town and Country-and the Cinema movie theatre on Tate Street, the campus commercial district-to desegregate their facilities. The SGA rationale expressed in the resolution was that WC was now an integrated campus, and that Tate Street was considered to be "on campus" as well.20 Singletary disagreed that he had any authority over the private businesses on Tate Street, but did make an unofficial request to the business owners that all students be served. The chancellor also warned that some sort of student protest might be forthcoming otherwise, and that the administration would not foster such demonstrations but also could not prevent them.21

On Thursday, May 16, the same day as the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce and the Merchants Association passed resolutions calling for equal access in local businesses, the WC SGA issued a call for "selective buying campaign" directed at the Tate Street merchants.22 Coinciding with a week of massive marches and demonstrations by the African American community, approximately two dozen UNCG students picketed the offending businesses they considered part of their campus community. As a result of the Tate Street pickets and those downtown, the remaining Tate Street businesses desegregated in fall of 1963.23


In 1996, JoAnne Smart Drane, one of the first two black students admitted to WC forty years earlier, became a trustee of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro after a long career as an educator.

Ten years after the 1981 consent decree involving UNC system campuses, the goal of 15% white enrollment on historically black campuses had been reached and exceeded. The goal of 10.6% black enrollment at historically white schools had not, despite significant progress.24 The 2007 freshman class at UNCG consisted of more than one quarter minority students. While the two institutions were never merged, as some had suggested, UNCG and neighboring A&T State University now cooperate on research projects and facilities and on an active consortium permitting cross-registration for courses. The first black doctoral students were graduated from UNCG in 1971.

Ralph Wilkerson, the first black male SGA president at UNCG was elected in 1978, by which time the Neo-Black Society had become one of the most important (and well-funded) student organizations on campus. The first black homecoming queen (only UNCG's second homecoming queen ever) was elected in 1983. Between 1979 and 2006, the Black Studies (now African American Studies) department grew from an interdisciplinary minor to an undergraduate degree program with plans for a graduate program as well.

While there will probably continue to be some issues for the foreseeable future, there is no doubt that UNCG has made considerable progress in race relations since Graham's tenure as chancellor.

-David Gwynn
CRG Intern


1 The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, "The History of UNCG," The University of North Carolina at Greensboro,

2 Allen W. Trelease, Making North Carolina Literate: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro from Normal School to Metropolitan University (Durham, N.C. : Carolina Academic Press, 2004), 277.

3 Negro Girls Were 'Not Sought' For College, Dr. Pierson Says," Greensboro Daily News, 11 September 1956.

4 Trelease, Making North Carolina Literate, 371; Drane, JoAnne Smart, "If I Had It to Do Over Again, I Would Without Hesitation" Bulletin, Fall 1991, 20-24.

5 William A. Link, William Friday: Power, Purpose, and American Higher Education (Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

6 Trelease, Making North Carolina Literate, 372.

7 "Ferguson Reply: Right to Conduct Forum Defended," Greensboro Daily News, 16 November 1967.

8 Trelease, Making North Carolina Literate, 374.

9 List of the Demands of Striking Food Workers at UNCG, 1969, 27 March 1969, James Sharbrough Ferguson Papers, Mss 218, University Archives & Manuscripts, Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

10 "Student strike - A Chancellor Reflects," University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) Alumni News, Fall 1979, 2.

11 Trelease, Making North Carolina Literate, 381.

12 Ada Fisher, "What Is Neo-Black Society?", The Carolinian, 18 October 1968. GUTS stood for Greensboro United Tutorial Service.

13 Trelease, Making North Carolina Literate, 372-373.

14 "Students File Suit To Integrate Black Society at UNC-G", Greensboro Dialy News, May 1, 1973.

15 Marian Morgan, "Black Studies Program May Come Soon," The Carolinian, 21 February 1969; Memo from L.C. Wright to Dean Mereb Mossman about a possible Black Studies Program, 17 May 1968, James Sharbrough Ferguson Papers, Mss 218, University Archives & Manuscripts, Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

16 Department of African American Studies, "History of the AFS Program," The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

17 Timeline of events related to the Greensboro sit-ins, 10 February 1960, Gordon Williams Blackwell Records, UA 2.6, University Archives & Manuscripts, Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

18 Ibid, Chancellor Blackwell's speech to WCUNC students regarding the Greensboro sit-ins, 9 February 1960.

19 Timeline of events related to the Greensboro sit-ins, 1 February 1960.

20 Resolution concerning the Negro students of the Woman's College, 1963, 13 March 1963, Vertical Files, University Archives & Manuscripts, Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

21 Conference with Mr. Apple of the Do-Nut Dinette, 1963, 13 March 1963, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Records, University Archives & Manuscripts, Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

22 Resolution concerning the Selective Buying at the Town and College, the Apple House Restaurant, and the Cinema Theatre, 1963, ca. 16 May 1963, Vertical Files, University Archives & Manuscripts, Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

23 Trelease, Making North Carolina Literate, 271.

24 Link, William Friday.


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