Choosing a College was a Black or White Decision

When it was time to start thinking about colleges, my parents took me on the typical college tour trip. We didn’t go too far from my hometown of Richmond. We visited Hampton University, Virginia State, Fisk in Nashville and North Carolina Central — all members of the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) network.

Predominantly white schools were also in the mix, having only recently become a significant option for black students. Some rose to the top from stories told by recent high school grads who came back to share their experience. I learned of others from my high school quarterback boyfriend who was aggressively recruited by many white schools across the country. When it came time to make that important decision, I chose the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, also the boyfriend’s choice.

It is interesting to note the reaction that that decision elicited then and now. While my parents were not enamored of the boyfriend, they were of my college choice. At the time, not only my parents, but my parents’ friends, and every adult with whom I shared the decision was proud. Virginians knew that William and Mary liked to refer to itself as the Ivy League of the South. It was, and is, a small, state school with a well-regarded reputation for academic excellence. Being accepted into William and Mary was prestigious for a white student. Acceptance was regarded as even more extraordinary for a black student. At that time, there were just a handful of black students on campus. The first was accepted in 1967, only two years before my freshman class.

When people learn that I graduated from William and Mary, the reaction is characteristically divided by race. White people, particularly white Virginians, nod their heads positively. Usually, this fact elevates me in their hierarchy of intellectual excellence. Many black people, on the other hand, shake their heads questioningly. Why did I forego an education grounded in the richness of black culture at an HBCU to attend predominately white William and Mary? They sometimes ask outright: “Did you get a scholarship?” And when I answer, “No,” they either ask me, “Then why did you go there?” or they silently wonder.

The answer has many layers, but at its core, you must consider the times.

My grades were excellent. While not in the top 10 of my high school graduating class, I was in the top 15, a member of the National Honor Society and active in everything from student government to the school yearbook. It was never actually said to me, but I had been groomed to be one of the first. I knew that I was expected to walk through doors as they opened for blacks. Attending William and Mary was one such door. It was seen as a stepping stone, especially in Virginia, to other career opportunities that would not have been possible just a few short years previously. I sincerely felt it was my responsibility to accept when William and Mary accepted me.

Now, in hindsight,the adult me has regretted this decision. College choices back then truly were black or white. I can think of no school, at the time, which was well integrated. While I received an excellent education, I do not have rich memories of campus camaraderie or of Greek life in the sisterhood of a sorority.

W and M homecoming. Flat Hat
Tamara Lucas Copeland was “Tammy” Lucas at W&M

Even though the student body voted me onto the homecoming court three out of my four years (the first black homecoming princess at W&M), I’ve only returned to homecoming twice.  And while I made a few good friends and have no recollection of racism while there, overall when I think back on college, there is just an emptiness, an experience devoid of the oh-so-important social fabric of college life.

I know that my life’s trajectory would have been different – quite different – had I made another choice. Better? I’ll never know.

11 Replies to “Choosing a College was a Black or White Decision”

  1. I understand your mixed emotions about choosing W&M over other excellent historically black colleges and universities. But I thank the vagaries of chance that put us together that freshman year in our cozy one bedroom apartment off campus which housed six young women. If that had not happened, I would have missed out on one of best friends then and later in life. So, for purely selfish reasons, I’m glad you came to William and Mary. My personal reasons for going there were simple: my parents said I could go to any college I wanted, as long as it was a state school in Virginia. No private schools (too expensive) or out-of-state schools (ditto). So, being ancient times, very few state supported schools in Virginia were coed. The University of Virginia didn’t go coed on the undergraduate level until the following year. My choices were relegated to Virginia Tech (too cold, and too technical) and William and Mary (far enough away and beautiful setting). Until just a couple of years ago, I did not even realize the William and Mary only began accepting black students two years earlier. I was shocked to learn that. I knew we had very few black students then, but I didn’t know that was part of the reason. I enjoyed my years at William and Mary, sometimes too much, but I can see that your experience as a stranger in a strange land would be trying at times and always there, even in the background.

  2. Tamara I have nothing to say about your choice of college. I often don’t find hindsight all that helpful or comforting😜 What I do know , however, is how very much I have enjoyed knowing you and calling you a friend! I wound not have wanted to missed out on that (including knowing AJ)!!! I totally believe in God’s plans and timing. He put you where He wanted you! I rejoice in knowing that!!! Loving this blog!!!!

  3. I definitely felt isolated and missed a part of college known as a social life. I actually spent a lot of time at UVA once Glennys started there because they actually had more of a social life with the blacks there. I agree with parts of your blog but felt we had different experiences because of your friendships and things like the homecoming court. Also, I definitely felt we were there at a time where “light skinned” blacks were more readily accepted by white students and professors than “dark skinned” blacks. I actually felt I was reliving some of the negative racial experiences I had in Jr High and high school. Having known you for so long as Tamara prior to going to college and people calling you Tammy at W and M really threw me for a loop! There is much more I can say, but will reserve for private conversations and not your blog.

  4. My parents decided that I would be one of four black students to integrate Spotsylvania all white elementary school in 1963. I also lived on Army bases in the states and overseas and attended integrated schools. When the time came to select college in 1972, I was accustomed to being “one of only” or “the first to…” . So I went with the money, the scholarship that ODU was offering to create a “more diverse” campus.
    Thank goodness NSU was across town to offer a social scene for ODU students of color.
    The other blessing was ODU’s hiring of a Black Dean of students, Dean Taylor, who made it her mission to bring black Greek life to ODU.
    After many years and a football team, homecomings at ODU now includes step shows, cookouts and Motown sounds. I finally feel that it’s my campus too!!

    1. Thanks, Sharon. I can appreciate how the proximity between ODU and NSU made a difference. Hampton was the closest HBCU to W&M, down 64E, not across town and I don’t recall a Dean Taylor type either. Both would have made a big difference in the fullness of my experience.

  5. Tamara, for what it is worth you are one of a number of extraordinarily talented people I know who WillIam and Mary managed to entice. All were Trail Blazers. They somehow knew how to bet on and recruit serious talent. I’ve always thought of that as the college’s super power. From where I sit as your fan and former emoloyee I’m glad you went, glad you joined ranks with their impressive graduates, and equally glad you continue to question the role of race in institutional and individual legacies. Keep up the blog entries.

    1. Chris,
      Thanks for the encouragement to keep the blogs coming. I am so glad that fate placed us together so many years ago. William and Mary must have played some part in that. You were/are a part of my personal and professional growth. I appreciate your comment.

  6. Tamara (or should I call you Tammy? 😂) I never knew that you were a homecoming princess. Of course, I was in the football locker room and never saw a halftime show. Congratulations on being the first black female to receive this honor. As a W&M student, although I share many of your feelings of isolation, I have no regrets about my decision to attend. I reflect back on the tough times there, but there were also great times especially with other black student pioneers who established the Black Student Union organization. Remember Tommy Hamilton, Russell Carter and Harry Blizzard just to name a few? We didn’t have much in the way of a social life, but we had each other through the good and the bad times. The Williamsburg black community including the campus bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and maintenance crew took us in under their wings as family and also provided a social outlet. So all in all, as I weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the W&M experience, would I make the same decision to attend the college as the first black athlete in the school’s history? The answer for me is a resounding YES!

  7. Thanks for your thought-provoking post, Tamara. I hear your description of all the achievements and accolades ….and the “emptiness, an experience devoid of the oh-so-important social fabric of college life.” Your post and the ensuing comments lead me to reflect on my years as a white undergraduate at U of Michigan, class of 1968. As radical as our campus was at that time, it was still largely segregated and, in hindsight, another bastion of white supremacy. How blind I was to what was directly in my vision……

    1. It feels like our country is beginning to have an honest conversation about race. Some of the horrific events of the last few years and the last few months have revealed a reality that some of us seem ready to confront. I’m glad that you are a part of the solution.

  8. I’m a white woman who was a member of Tamara’s class, and I remember seeing her as a kind of icon at that time–smart, gorgeous, outstanding in every way–and such a GOOD representative of the integration that Virginia schools had only recently been required to practice. Yet I only knew her peripherally, as a role model, a symbol, a representative of an idea, not in any personal way. I had no idea of her hopes, dreams, of her personal struggles as a woman of color trying to find her authentic Self and her place in our world. Even now, I’m just beginning to comprehend White Privilege and the immense disconnect that still pervades our society regarding race. This article hit me in a deep way, and I’m recognizing that I want to have the capacity to see those disconnects and, at least in myself, begin to bridge them. Thank you, Tamara.

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