Trailblazers and Builders: The First Black Students
Elon’s first Black students arrived at Elon without a formal support system. The African American Resource Room did not appear until 1992, followed by the Office of Minority Affairs in 1993. These trailblazers navigated the racial politics of a slowly desegregating university and built new institutions on their own.
Black students then, as now, had a diversity of experiences in their confrontations with systemic racism. Compared to other venues in American life, most remembered overt incidents of anti-Black prejudice to be relatively rare—but that did not mean things were easy. “At Elon,” remembered Donna Oliver ’72, “there was no name calling, there were no threats, but it was the other extreme. You were totally ignored. It was as though you were invisible.”
With very small numbers, most of the first Black students fought lonely battles. Gwendolyn Manning ’78 M.Ed.’89 (née Crawford) remembered how the woman in charge of her dorm locked her out every night at the beginning of school, whether or not she made curfew. Each account of individual experiences, some of which are preserved thanks to the extraordinary work of L’Tanya Richmond ’87 but many of which are still unheard, brings a more nuanced understanding of the time. “We were really a diverse group, we were as different as we were alike,” reflected Bryant Colson ’80 in a Black History Month interview in 2005.
Richmond directed the Office of Minority Affairs from its creation in 1993, through its evolution to the Multicultural Center and until her departure in 2008 for Smith College in Massachusetts. Even as she worked to build additional supports for Black students and others from diverse populations, such as SMART (Student Mentors Advising Rising Talent) and DEEP (Diversity Emerging Education Program), she also sought to memorialize the actions of those men and women who had gone before and had made their own way. The “Wall of Fame,” which she put together and now hangs in the African American Resource Room, captures many of the non-athletic firsts of Black students on campus and lifts up those who carved out a place for themselves and succeeding generations.
In order to connect with one another across lines of difference and to press the institution to begin acknowledging their presence, Black students began to build enduring institutions in the 1970s.77 The founders of the Black Cultural Society (BCS), organized during the 1974–75 academic year, pledged first in their new constitution “to promote understanding and a sense of unity among Black students,” and second “to encourage this College to a greater awareness and appreciation of the culture and achievements of Black people.
A relatively small number of Black students, still numbering about 200 throughout the 1970s, built additional organizations for mutual support. Black students formally organized the Gospel Choir two years after the BCS, with Zebedee Talley ’78 and Wes McLaughlin ’78 the first co-presidents (and warm support from Mary Jane Ireland, Norma Jean Ireland and John Miles of Elon First Baptist Church).
Manning recounted that the meetings became times of profound fellowship, with perhaps people singing and 20 more watching. The GENTS (Genuine Exuberant Natural Togetherness) arrived on the scene in 1983, just as Black Greek letter organizations began to appear, and both organizations provided additional outlets for socializing and solidarity. The respective niches each of these groups filled remain difficult to discern at a distance of 40 years.
The focus in this episode on the first cohort of Black students inspires but also obscures two important storylines. First, Black students continued to blaze new trails and build new institutions after 1993 — collaboratively with majority students, independently and with the advice and support of the successor to the Multicultural Center, the CREDE.
Moreover, Black faculty and staff also had to make their own way for years without formal support based on their identity. Faculty members like Matthew Clark in biology, who arrived in 1999, have borne the burden (and honor) of being the first too many times, have offered counsel and mentorship to countless students, have seen many initiatives to amplify Black voices fizzle, and have served with distinction at an institution that has not consistently demonstrated its gratitude. Their stories of persistence must also be told.
Committee on History and Memory Report, pgs. 22-24.
L’Tanya Richmond, “Elon’s Black History: A Story to Be Told,” Master’s Thesis (Duke University, 2005).