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The Daily Tar Heel

Karen Parker discusses UNC experience

Was school's first black female undergrad

Karen Parker, the first black woman undergraduate at UNC, delivered a speech Monday night. DTH/Helen Woolard
Karen Parker, the first black woman undergraduate at UNC, delivered a speech Monday night. DTH/Helen Woolard

Correction (April 4 11:29 p.m.): Due to reporting errors, an earlier of this story incorrectly stated that Karen Parker was inducted into the Order of the Grail-Valkyries. She was inducted into the Order of the Valkyries, a women-only honorary society that later merged with Order of the Grail. The story has been changed to reflect the correction.

The story also states that Parker moved to North Carolina after leaving the L.A. Times. She moved to Salt Lake City before moving to North Carolina. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the errors.

As an undergraduate student at UNC, Karen Parker never figured out how to behave herself and follow the rules.

But because of her determination to break social barriers, she made history when she graduated from the University in 1965 as the first black undergraduate woman to do so.

She recounted several experiences she had with discrimination Monday evening in an amusing lecture hosted by the Carolina Association of Black Journalists.

Parker transferred to UNC in 1963 after attending a women’s college in Greensboro for a couple of years. Black students were often not allowed to enter UNC as freshmen.

“When I left here in 1965, I knew that one day there would be a lot more black students at this school and attitudes would change,” Parker said.

“But I couldn’t see the future and I never would have imagined that I would be back here 45 years later talking to you.”

Parker said that for black students, their first few years at UNC were a fight — one that Parker’s mother warned her to avoid.

“When I came here my mother told me I needed to behave for the black students who would come after me, because if I was bad, they wouldn’t let any more of us in,” she said. “The problem was, behaving was not in my disposition.”

She then talked about how she and her roommate defied the women’s curfew rules by staying out past 10:30 p.m. on a weekday.

“There were all these rules for women — men didn’t have any rules like that,” she said. “One night we just got tired of it all, and we did not go back to the dorm. We ended up spending the night in the Episcopal church.”

Parker was inducted into the Order of the Valkyries, a UNC honorary society, but said she thought of it at the time as a glorified sorority whose members weren’t committed to making a difference at the University. When she suggested that the curfew be relaxed for senior women, the other women were horrified.

“I realized that a lot of these girls fell into the stereotype of the day. They came to school to get an Mrs. degree,” Parker said. “They figured they would be married rather soon after graduation.”

After graduating with a degree in journalism, Parker worked for a few different newspapers before landing a job at the Los Angeles Times.

She eventually became frustrated with the stagnant nature of the L.A. Times and decided to move back to North Carolina, taking a position at the Winston-Salem Journal.

She had some advice for college students.

“One thing about being young and in college — it allows you a lot of leeway to get involved in things,” she said. “The source of prejudice is fear and ignorance. The black community has come a long way.”

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