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Black pioneers share their UNC experiences

Bill Cooper, who graduated in 1968 and was the first African-American basketball player on the junior varsity team at UNC, said he experienced adversity on and off the court. 

“The ref wouldn’t let me go near anybody. I’d get a foul,” he said.

Cooper was part of a panel of four UNC black pioneers who described what it was like to attend the University as a black student half a century ago. The panel was part of a Black Alumni Reunion event during Homecoming weekend.

Walter Jackson, the chairperson of the 2015 Black Pioneers Committee, led the panel.

“Kermit the Frog once said that being green isn’t easy. Well, being black at Carolina 50 years ago was not easy,” Jackson said.

The panelists graduated between the years 1965 and 1971. In the classroom, Cooper's experience was not much better.

“Discrimination started right away. I got a D on that first test, which was in one of those blue books, and that discouraged me,” Cooper said. “One of my mentors took that blue book to the department head, and they reviewed it and he said it was a B paper.”

Karen Parker, who graduated in 1965, was the first African-American female undergraduate to enroll at the University.

“I was a jailbird during the Chapel Hill civil rights demonstrations,” Parker said.

The demonstrations she took part in ranged from going to segregated restaurants to blocking all of the intersections in Chapel Hill after a football game against Wake Forest University. 

“We went to this restaurant, and of course the cops came, and we did the Martin Luther King thing where you’re supposed to drop to the ground and go limp and they have to carry you to the car,” Parker said. 

“Did all that, went to jail, administration went crazy, phone calls all over, parents on the phone saying get out of that jail, and the whole point was to stay there­ — we were supposed to fill the jails.”

John Sellars, a 1971 graduate and one of the first members of the Black Student Movement, also participated in demonstrations to stand up for the African-American community at the University.

“By that time the students who were at Carolina had the attitude that we’re tired and we won’t take it no more,” Sellars said. “So instead of just going along to get along, everything became very confrontational.”

Sellars said the Black Student Movement protested on behalf of the cafeteria workers, custodians and other University employees.

“We decided that it was time for us to confront the administration, to not just demonstrate, but to turn things over,” he said.

Jimmy Barnes, who graduated in 1969, said the University has changed a lot since his days as a student.

“I never had another black student in class … no black professors, no black students to connect with. It was just different,” Barnes said.

Parker said she also felt isolated as one of the few black women studying at the University. She remembered one moment when several white male students confronted her on her way to class.

“They started yelling at me," she said. "They weren’t just yelling racial things, they were yelling sexual things. And I was doing my best to try to ignore them but my insides were ready to explode. How dare you? Because of the color of my skin, you think you can put me on that level?"

While her experience was difficult, Parker said it changed her as a person.

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“If I had not gone to the UNC journalism school I wouldn’t be who I am today,” she said.

Jackson said many other pioneers experienced similar adversity at their time at UNC.

“It was a lonely time for many of us as an African-American in those days, but we had each other,” Jackson said.