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The Daily Tar Heel

First Black UNC Students Recall Hostility, Strife

Compelled by a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, five black students were allowed to enroll in the School of Law after the court decided that equal facilities did not exist in state-maintained black schools.

With those five students, the mandatory practice of segregation was dead, but the idea behind racial separation was still very much alive.

The first black UNC students were allowed to eat with other students in the dining hall, but the administration tucked them away on the third floor of Steele Building, which was a residence hall at the time, and seated them in the section of the football stadium reserved for "colored persons."

"They were still trying to maintain segregation after the court order," said Harvey Beech, one of the first black students to enter the law school in the summer of 1951.

Beech said he wanted to come to UNC because the University did not want to let him in. And once he came to campus, he was met with indifference and, in some cases, hostility.

"I wasn't even told where the dormitory was," he said. "When they gave me my room, it was on top of Steele on the third floor with just two people."

Beech said he found companionship with the other black students, especially Kenneth Lee, but that he had to be wary of other students.

"Them all being the same hue, the color white, we couldn't tell the good ones from the bad ones," he said. "But they could tell us. It was nigger this and nigger that."

While many people at UNC treated the black students with ambivalence, Beech said there were pockets of violent behavior.

Beech said he was walking out of the dining hall with Lee when they saw that armed officers had blocked the sidewalk in front of them.

"I said, 'Kenneth, are you ready to die?'"

Beech said they walked up and stood within 15 or 20 inches of the gun and stayed there until the officers backed away and let them pass.

While Beech and his fellow black classmates broke ground, the first black undergraduate students did not step on campus until 1955.

LeRoy Frasier, one of the first black undergraduate students at UNC, said he didn't dwell on the isolated incidents of hostile behavior.

"I just let those things roll off my back because there were lots of balances," he said. "Overall, I enjoyed it. I had friends."

Frasier said the most trying element was the lack of female black students on campus. "The only unusual thing was going to a place that long and never dating," he said. "It's not a normal thing in a college experience."

But David Dansby, the first black student to earn an undergraduate degree in 1961, said isolation plagued his time at UNC.

"You just weren't a part of anything," he said. "At the age of 18, you expect to interact with other students and exchange notes if you miss class. Those were the kinds of things we were not privy to."

Dansby's UNC experience took on an element of danger when he participated in the efforts to desegregate Franklin Street stores. "Once I started the picketing in February 1960, people exploded cherry bombs at my window and door as an intimidation tactic," he said. "There were also threatening telephone calls. I thought they were cowards."

At the same time, however, Dansby began to enjoy his college experience more. "The tension came out, and I did better in school," he said.

But UNC's past racial climate has taken its toll on some of the University's first black students. While Beech said he is now able to look upon UNC fondly, he said the way he was treated was shameful. "I'm 78 years old, and it still bothers me," he said. "It causes tears to come to my eyes. I thought God had left his post for a while."

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The University Editor can be reached at udesk@unc.edu.

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