First steps In 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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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 commit ments 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. 24
In 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.
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
Published on May 8, 2009