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.

School Segregation: Not All Negative

School Segregation: Not All Negative

The first day of school is always exciting. I’m sure that mine was no different when I walked into Albert V. Norrell Elementary School. Even though Brown v. Board of Education had struck down separate-but-equal schooling, my education started in an all-black school environment. I suspect that I didn’t notice. All the people in my world were black. We were all Negroes—in my family, in my neighborhood, at my church, and now at my school. Nothing new.

Norrell school photo
The author in front of her classmates at A.V. Norrell Elementary School.

At the time, nationally and in Richmond, Virginia, where I lived, people argued whether separate school systems were inherently unequal and whether black students were disadvantaged by this practice. In many ways, the evidence was clear. We received hand-me-down books from the white schools, our science labs, if we had them, had outdated equipment, and the school facilities themselves had only marginal upkeep.

But there was one significant difference. In that all-black environment, everyone was fully dedicated to the success of every student. From the janitorial crew, the cafeteria team, and the faculty to Mrs. Ethel Overby, our principal (the first black woman ever named to be a principal in the Richmond school system), they were all willing to do whatever it took to nurture our desire to learn and to afford us every possible learning opportunity. This reality was a powerful counterbalance to the deficits in the system.

I don’t believe that black students experience that degree of total commitment to their success anymore. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that teachers and administrators don’t want to see their students succeed. I believe that most do. But put simply, I also think that unconscious bias looms large in the education system. Far too many have bought into  ideas—preconceptions—about the pathology of black families, about the inability of black boys to focus, about the myth of laziness, and the list goes on. You know the stereotypes as well as I do.

I remember being surrounded by a cocoon of love and support. I can still remember the pride felt as I stood at school assemblies for the singing of Lift Every Voice and Sing, the Negro National Anthem. I knew I could do anything I set my mind to because everyone told me that I would be successful and everyone’s actions were intended to help me open the doors to success and to walk through them.

The older I get and reflect on the current state of affairs, the better I understand my father’s comment that integration was the best thing that happened to black people and the worst.

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For more information on unconscious/implicit bias, watch this.

Forever Friends

One day I got a call from a longtime friend. Madeline, a civilian employee of the US Department of the Army, was seeking a high-level security clearance and had noted me as a reference.

“The form asked how long I had known the person listed as a reference. When I wrote 50+ years, I startled myself,” she told me in her typical dryly humorous way.

We chuckled. How could that be?

It seemed like just yesterday we attended high school homecoming games cracking up at halftime as alumni from various years would be invited onto the football field: 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, even 75. We would laugh out loud and comment in that sarcastic, all-knowing-teenager way, “50 years! Can they still walk?”

Now it is our turn; almost 50 years since we graduated from high school. Sadly, Madeline won’t be walking out on the field for that 50th high school celebration. Dr. Madeline B. Swann, chemist, passed away on July 12, 2017.

You never think of your friends dying. Eight of us had been an unbroken circle since middle school. We were first the Junior Valianettes, then the Valianettes and then in our adulthood, the name that stuck was Divas. We had missed some years in between as we went off separately to college and established careers and families, but we came back together as we reached our forties. We always got together in Washington, DC to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Day and went to see the latest black-themed movies. Dreamgirls, This is It, and The Help stand out. We constantly talked about the challenges facing black people in America and bemoaned the ones we faced growing up in racially-segregated Richmond, Virginia.

When I told the group that I was writing a manuscript to try and capture our decades-long friendship—with the overlay of race in America—they were all supportive. But Madeline truly was one of my biggest cheerleaders. She loved the concept and the name I gave my book-to-be, Daughters of the Dream.

madeline-cross-stitch.jpg

Her last gift to each of us was a framed group picture with a cross stitch of each name on that individual’s gift and the inscription: Daughters of the Dream. Today I am even more committed than ever to finishing my book, and I know that Madeline is near, still cheering me on.