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Wake Forest events celebrate first black student

By Lisa O'donnell

The Associated Press

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — He came from thousands of miles away, a confident but shy young man, plucked from a secondary school in Ghana to integrate a private university in the South, in an era when such bold figures were welcomed with jeers, if not mobs.


Ed Reynolds offered a simple but clear-eyed view of how he expected to be received at Wake Forest University in the fall of 1962 as the school's first black undergraduate.

"There will be some people who will like me," he told the Winston-Salem Journal that year, "and others who won't."

Reynolds, now 70, looks back on his younger self, shrugging off any notion that what he did 50 years ago this September was particularly heroic.

"I didn't view it as bravery or anything of that sort," said Reynolds, talking by phone from his home in San Diego, where he is retired after teaching several years at the University of California in San Diego. "Going abroad? Yeah, it was challenging but it didn't seem so daunting. You had a purpose."

Wake Forest University is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Reynolds' historic admission with a year's worth of activities and programs organized under the banner "Faces of Courage: Wake Forest Celebrates 50 Years of Integration."

The celebration will go beyond marking the events that led to racial integration, broadening the scope to look at the wider issue of diversity on campus, with programs that focus on transgender people, Muslims, American Indians, veterans and active-duty military.

Although each of these groups, and others, has made historic "firsts" at Wake Forest, Reynolds' admission 50 years ago was a seminal moment, setting this once-Baptist college on a new trajectory of inclusion.

"Until 1962, black students, specifically, were not allowed to attend Wake Forest University," said Barbee Oakes, the assistant provost for diversity and inclusion. "When black students were allowed to join the university, we began to see a broader acceptance of diversity in many ways."

Indeed, Edwin Wilson, the provost emeritus, remembers seeing Asian-American and Latino students on campus when he was teaching English on the old Wake Forest campus, in the town of Wake Forest in northeastern Wake County, in the 1950s. (The Wake campus moved to Winston-Salem in 1956.)

"The only prohibition was against African-Americans," Wilson recalled. "And that would have been embedded in the times we were living in."

Still, by the mid-1950s, the winds of change were stirring ever so slightly across the campus, fanned by liberal Baptists in the Baptist State Convention, which started Wake Forest in 1834.

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In 1955, the convention approved a resolution saying that Baptists have a responsibility to open their colleges to qualified applicants, regardless of race, according to Bynum Shaw's history of Wake Forest from 1943-1967.

At Wake Forest, college administrators were slow to act, leaving a leadership vacuum on this issue that was filled by students.

When the admissions office, as required by the board of trustees, turned down two black applicants for the 1958-59 school year, a student magazine blasted the decision in an editorial.

"Wake Forest College," student Jerry Matherly wrote, "if it is to continue to call itself an intellectual and Christian center for education, must integrate."

Other bold students, many of whom had ties to progressive professors in the religion department, continued to push the issue, most prominently in 1960 when 10 of them joined with students at what is now Winston-Salem State University in a sit-in at the downtown Woolworth lunch counter.

The students were jailed and bailed out by the school's chaplain, a religion professor and the dean of student affairs. School administrators did not punish the students, but according to the campus newspaper the Old Gold and Black, President Harold Tribble did urge them to keep their focus on academics.

Glenn Blackburn, who would later play a pivotal role in bringing Reynolds to Wake Forest, said the sit-ins provoked a strong reaction among students, leading to debates and discussions.

"The whole topic of civil rights and integration was all over the campus that spring," said Blackburn, a retired professor of history at the University of Virginia's College at Wise.

A few weeks after the sit-ins, the student legislature voted 9-4 to recommend to the trustees that discrimination be abolished. But a campuswide vote taken later that spring showed that 742 opposed integration and 644 favored it.

One anonymous letter writer to the campus newspaper made a case against integration, asking classmates whether they had ever noticed the "rotten odor" that black people emit.

"If this is what you want to sit in class with and have as a roommate, all the power to you. I don't."

But the progressive students were making headway, forming the African Student Program to fund the travel and academic expenses of an African student who would break the color barrier.

Blackburn, a prominent member of the group, said it likely formed out of a Sunday night meeting of the Baptist Student Union.

"Someone said, 'We ought to do something,'?" Blackburn said. "And gradually, over the summer, we hit on the idea of finding an African student. If we Baptists are going to send a missionary to convert Africans, then why not let them study at an American university?"

The students reached out to missionaries in Africa to help them identify a student.

That student was Reynolds, one of six children raised by his widowed mother, in a small town not far from the capital, Accra.

Influenced by the Presbyterian missionaries that populated his town, Reynolds was a devout Christian and promising student who was selected as a teenager to study at a prestigious secondary school in Accra.

Buoyed by his Christian faith, Reynolds arrived in Winston-Salem in the fall of 1961, his airfare paid by the faculty and staff who contributed to the African Student Program.

Despite Reynolds' presence, the trustees would not be moved — although they did allow blacks to enroll in their graduate programs, and later, summer programs. Reynolds, meanwhile, enrolled at Shaw University in Raleigh, a historically black university.

"By the middle of '61," Blackburn said, "we'd made up our minds that we'd keep pushing this thing."

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Wilson remembers a groundswell of support for ending segregation among the faculty. But senior administrators, including Tribble, remained in the background, Blackburn said.

Tribble, he said, was sympathetic but willing to let the students lead.

"He wasn't going to get out in front, but he didn't throw roadblocks in our way," Blackburn said.

Finally, on April 27, 1962, the board of trustees voted 17-9 to end segregation, paving the way for Reynolds' admission. A local black woman, Patricia Smith, also enrolled as a day student.

By all accounts, including Reynolds', his two-year stay at Wake Forest went smoothly.

"I felt pretty safe," he said. "There were people who were protective of me."

Reynolds also found support within the city's black community. Fellow worshippers in area churches, such as Shiloh Baptist Church and New Bethel Baptist Church, would fill his pockets with dimes and quarters when he visited their churches to worship. The cleaning staff at Wake Forest would leave cakes and cookies in his dorm room.

"The black community in Winston-Salem was always there for me," he said.

Reynolds worked in the library 20 hours a week while juggling a full courseload. He graduated with honors in 1964 and later earned graduate degrees from Ohio University and Yale Divinity School.

Though Wake Forest was among the first private institutions in the South to integrate and distinguished itself for several "firsts," including the first black quarterback in the ACC and the first black head football coach in the ACC, progress was slow in other areas.

For instance, it took the university seven years after Reynolds broke the racial barrier to admit its first black women residence students — Deborah Janet Graves and Muriel Elizabeth Norbrey — in 1969.

The first tenure-track professors — Herman Eure and Dolly McPherson — came in 1974.

In his 2009 Founders' Day address, longtime history professor Anthony Parent recounted stories of black students who were belittled by professors and made to feel unworthy of being Wake Forest students.

Ernest Wade, the director of minority affairs from 1986 to 1995, often consoled these students.

"I'd have student after student saying, 'You should hear what they say, that black students don't have to take the SAT, that we're just here because Wake is trying to increase its numbers. You don't know what it's like. They expect you to speak for all black people,'?" said Wade, now an education consultant in Winston-Salem. "But I always told them, 'You're here because you belong here.'?"

Many of these painful stories can be traced to the lack of black students.

When Wade arrived in 1986, the black student population was about 2 percent. He pushed to fill a minority recruiter position that had been vacant for nine months, as well as more scholarship money for minorities.

He and a recruiter began scouring the country for bright black students, finding many of them in New Orleans, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

By the time Wade left in 1996, the black student population had jumped to 9 percent and scholarship money available to them had increased from about $100,000 to nearly $1 million.

"I felt we did our part by working hard to locate very talented students who could compete, and the university did their part by providing resources to have unlimited travel," Wade said.

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Among the most well-known students from that era is Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor of political science at Tulane University and the host of her own show on MSNBC.

Harris-Perry, who visited the campus last week, said her experience at Wake Forest was a positive one, in part because of some racial incidents that galvanized what she estimated was a black population of about 200 black, non-athlete students.

"I cut my political teeth at Wake Forest," Harris-Perry said. "We had student protests, and, at one point, were wearing black armbands in protest, and we'd have meetings on campus on why all black kids would sit together in cafeteria. So those things, I think, at 17, 18, 19 (years old), they felt painful and sometimes alienating, but it's very easy to look back and see that they were critical in the development of a racial and feminist identity."

Black enrollment peaked at 9.2 percent in 1997, according to Parent's Founder's Day address. Today, it stands at 7.5 percent. However, the number of ethnic minorities in this year's first-year class is 26 percent.

But while the percentage of black students has dropped, the willingness of the campus population to accept people of different backgrounds seems to have improved, said Tré Easton, the student body president.

His election is an example of how things have changed on campus since Ed Reynolds arrived 50 years ago.

Easton, who is black, is the first openly gay student-body president. In his campaign, the issue of his race and sexuality never entered the conversation, he said.

"I talked about what I love about the school," he said.

Since arriving on campus four years ago, Easton said he has not heard one racially tinged comment.

But he does see room for improvement.

"I don't think we've crossed the threshold where race doesn't matter," Easton said. "But we are an ever-evolving community."

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To learn more about Wake Forest's Face of Courage programs, visit facesofcourage.wfu.edu.

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Information from: Winston-Salem Journal, http://www.journalnow.com

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