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Meet Genevieve Lowry Cole, the first Native American woman to graduate from UNC

Genevieve Lowry Cole, 1954 graduate, with Laine Stewart, faculty in the Division of Clinical Laboratory Science. Photos by Elizabeth Poindexter, Courtesy UNC-Chapel Hill

Genevieve Lowry Cole became the first Native American woman to graduate from UNC in 1954, but she never dreamed that she could attend the school. 

When college recruiters came to Pfeiffer University, the Methodist school Cole attended before coming to UNC, the director of admissions at UNC noticed that she walked by without making eye contact. He stopped her and asked why she was not interested. She explained that she did not think she could be accepted because of statutes that prevented Native Americans from being admitted to the University. 

The director of admissions encouraged Cole to apply anyway, and she received her acceptance just a few days later to major in medical technology — which she knew she wanted to pursue since the eighth grade. 

“I feel very fortunate and I always wanted to give back to UNC-Chapel Hill as much as they gave to me,” Cole said. “I could never reach that goal.” 

Giving back 

Cole gives back to the University through various outlets, including donating money and serving on the Board of Visitors. She also is involved with Native American students on campus. 

Jamison Lowery, a junior from Robeson County, met Cole through events put on by the UNC American Indian Center and Carolina Indian Circle. Lowery said in the past, Cole invited Native students to dinner at her home and shared words of encouragement about her experience.  

“She just kind of encouraged us to not get discouraged and really focus on what we’re doing here and trying to make sure we’re helping people in our community, the Native students,” Lowery said. “That’s something I try to make sure we do every day.” 

Pembroke to Chapel Hill 

Cole grew up in Pembroke, a small Lumbee town that her family rarely left. The town had Lumbee-owned businesses including a shoe store, movie theater and grocery store, which Cole’s father encouraged his family to patronize whenever possible. 

“I didn’t really experience too much racial objections because we simply tried to stay away from things we knew would intimidate us,” Cole said. 

Though she had some experience being at Pfeiffer, a non-Lumbee school, Cole grew up attending schools with other Native American students. She said she was treated just like her fellow students and rarely talked about Pembroke unless somebody asked her if she was Native — which happened occasionally, since “Lowry” was a traditionally Lumbee name at the time. 

“None of my friends, I don’t ever remember holding against me,” Cole said. “Now maybe that was where I went or the friends that I chose, who were very kind and considerate. Even if they did, though, they’d say ‘So what? You look just like one of us, you act just like one of us and we think you’re one of us.’” 

University historian Cecelia Moore said UNC students were likely more accepting of Native American students than University officials because they were not as concerned with the legality of admitting them. 

Admissions Segregation at UNC 

The laws officials used to regulate whether Native American students could attend the University often differed based on their appearances, Moore said. Native Americans who looked white had a greater chance of being admitted than those who looked like they could be Black. 

“The Lumbees themselves called themselves Native Americans, but the white authorities who were trying to figure out how to apply segregation struggled with sometimes deciding they were African American, sometimes white, sometimes not,” Moore said. 

Lumbee Native Americans were especially hard for officials to classify because they did not have an official tribal designation from the government. When Henry Owl from the Eastern Band of Cherokee was admitted to UNC in the 1920s, Moore said he was treated somewhat like a foreign student applying. 

Moore said the decisive move allowing Native Americans to apply to UNC came in 1951, when five Black students enrolled in the law school and, in effect, desegregated all graduate and professional schools. 

Being native on campus today 

More than 60 years after Cole graduated, Native American students make up less than 1 percent of the UNC student body today. 

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Lowery, who majors in American Indian and indigenous studies, said issues still exist for Native students at UNC. He said these include cultural appropriation with costumes at Halloween, as well as underrepresentation in higher education. 

“It’s hard for a lot of Native students to actually be able to attend college,” Lowery said. “They come from rural communities where they don’t oftentimes receive the best education, which isn’t their fault, but I think we’re underrepresented in higher education.” 

When Lowery tells his peers he is a Native American student, he said he tends to receive ill-informed questions such as “What percentage are you?” and “Do you guys still live in teepees?” This experience is part of what motivates him to educate people about his culture. 

Because of low representation of Native Americans in higher education, Lowery said it inspires him to see the success Cole has had as a Lumbee who graduated from UNC. 

“Having those role models to look up to as Native students is really important for us,” Lowery said. “We can look at her and think ‘She made it. She did it. She accomplished these things during her time here.’”