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Monday December 5th

UNC's Black Pioneers reflect on decades of 'shared kinship'

<p>Dr. Joanne Wilson, a 1969 alumnus of UNC, reflects on her time at the University as a Black female during the Black Pioneers Dinner on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022.</p>
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Dr. Joanne Wilson, a 1969 alumnus of UNC, reflects on her time at the University as a Black female during the Black Pioneers Dinner on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022.

It was a stormy September night, yet the roars of laughter inside the Blue Hill Event Center drowned out the winds of Tropical Storm Ian, as members of the Black Alumni Reunion (BAR) met for dinner and conversations at their first full-scale, in-person event since 2019.

The dinner was one of numerous events that took place across a five-day-long celebration of Black alumni at UNC. Sophisticated Catering and Event Planning, a Black-owned business, catered the Southern cuisine meal at the dinner.

In attendance were past and present Black UNC students, who were able to reconnect with friends, classmates, and sorority and fraternity members — who, over the years, became family, said Edith Hubbard, a UNC alumna who graduated in 1966. The reunion has become tradition; a place for camaraderie and a place for sharing experiences of joy and struggle alike.

“Shared pain, I think, tends to bring about shared kinship,” said Walter Jackson, an alumnus from the class of 1967, who was on the dinner planning committee. “There were emotional scars for almost all of us as Black students at the University in those days. Those scars don't go away easily. As a matter of fact, they probably stay with us forever. But again, the fact that we experienced those things together helped us to bond.” 

The hall was filled with superlatives — the first Black student-athlete baseball player, some of the first Black female students to graduate from UNC, the third Black student to graduate from UNC with a degree in journalism. A hall full of Black Pioneers, the first generation of Black students, who attended UNC Chapel Hill from 1952 through the class of 1972.

“We know that you were not the first to have the intellectual ability to succeed at Carolina, not the first to have the courage to attend here,” said Hubbard, who gave the welcoming address. “But we were the ones who were there and willing to step up when the walls of resistance finally started to give way.” 

The focus of the event was a panel discussion, where alumni panelists Dr. Joanne Wilson, Cureton Johnson and former U.S. House Rep. Mel Watt reflected on their lives at UNC and how it shaped them into the individuals they are.

The first generation of African-American students experienced what Dr. Wilson, who graduated in 1969, referred to as a "culture of singularity," where they felt isolated as a result of lack of representation and respect from their white peers.

“I knew every Black student's name and family history,” said Watt, a 1967 alumnus. "But we were all scattered in dormitories throughout the campus, and each of us suffered from being alone, detached and insecure in one way or another. We were all fighting to compete and survive while dealing with a range of racial insults and trauma with no institutional support.”

The Pioneers found support in one another to overcome the solitude of being different from their white peers, classmates or roommates — they found family.

“That (family) held us together. That moved us forward. That gave us breath and strength to speak to power,” said Johnson, a 1971 alumnus.

The Black Pioneers witnessed the height of the civil rights movement and the demonstrations that took place in Chapel Hill, but because of UNC’s attendance policy, many had to choose between their academics and the fight for their rights. 

Students like Dr. Wilson had even less time to be involved in the demonstrations, as they were pursuing their degrees and ensuring that their families’ efforts to provide them with an education were not in vain.

“The demonstrations left Black students with a wrenching dilemma: either repress or defer our desire to be activist demonstrators to get a college education, or get actively involved in the demonstrations,” said Watt, who said he knew individuals that were declared ‘academically ineligible’ for missing too many classes to protest.

However, their struggles paid off, and subsequent students expressed their appreciation and gratitude that they were able to enjoy the fruits of the Pioneers' labor.

“As a 1982 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, I realize that I stand on the shoulders of you all who started in 1951 through 1972,” Hugh Holston, chairperson of the BAR, said. “And I am so proud of what you did to make sure that those of us, like me, had the opportunity to come to Chapel Hill.”

At the end of the event, “We Shall Overcome," a song about overcoming racial injustice, was sung by the attendees, UNC’s past and present — hopeful for the future.

“There was a lot of wisdom shared, a lot of joy shared. It's good seeing old friends, new friends, and then to see and meet their children — it’s just everything we could want for,” Hubbard said.


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