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Community mourns David Dansby Jr., first Black undergraduate to get their degree from UNC

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David Dansby Jr.'s senior portrait appears in a 1961 edition of the Yackety Yak. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collections.

In 1961, at a time when Franklin St. businesses like the Varsity Theatre were only open to Black students with UNC IDs and not Black community members, David Dansby Jr. and his fellow classmates dedicated themselves to the fight for desegregation in Chapel Hill.

In May of that year, Dansby became the first known African American undergraduate to earn his degree from UNC and went on to attend the UNC School of Law. Dansby died on Jan. 22 at the age of 84. He is survived by his sister, Marion Dansby, and other relatives.

“He was a visionary,” class of 1966 graduate Edith Hubbard said. She met Dansby while protesting to integrate small businesses in Chapel Hill and Durham. “He saw the path to what needed to be done, and then he was part of that group that said, ‘This is the way to make it happen.'”

Class of 1965 graduate Lewis Burton met Dansby at a picket line protest during the fall of his first year. As Burton stood on Franklin Street holding his sign, he said 22-year-old Dansby approached him.

“You need to be in study hall and you need to be going to class,” Burton recalled Dansby said to him. In the weeks following their first encounter, Burton said he and Dansby would catch up in a local barber shop where Dansby would encourage him to continue on with his education.

“We were helping out each other on what to do, what not to do, where not to go, and that was David,” Burton said. “He was the mentor, and he was a trailblazer — he had already done it.”

Dansby’s perseverance, guidance and support served as an inspiration for Otto White Jr., a graduate from the class of 1965.

White, Dansby and other Black classmates spent most of their time in barber shops and churches and attended social activities near where the community-based nonprofit organization Inter-Faith Council for Social Service opened in Carrboro in 1963, White said.

There were no Black instructors, counselors or mentors at UNC for the pioneering students to look up to and no Black athletes to cheer on, White said. He said he and Dansby often traveled to historically Black universities such as N.C. Central University and N.C. A&T for sporting events.

“Our hats are always off to him for being the lone pioneer,” White said.

In 2014, Dansby received an Unsung Hero Award from the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. This award seeks to recognize activists who are educated about civil rights history and support and advise fellow advocates, class of 1967 graduate and former Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency Melvin Watt said.

“He wasn’t ever looking for the limelight,” Watt said. “He was there always as an advisor, as a supporter, as a cheerleader, as a friend and that’s the way I would characterize him.”

After graduating from law school, Dansby moved back to his home city of Greensboro to practice law. Watt said he came to know Dansby in 1971 after moving to Charlotte to work alongside civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers.

Dansby had a network of friends inside and outside of the state, worked with civil rights attorneys to strategize, participated in activist meetings, offered advice and ideas and conducted research, Hubbard said.

Former chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz recognized Dansby in 2021 for his dedication and courage as a University pioneer. Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts said in an email statement that Dansby was a role model for many on campus and that the University and the state of North Carolina are better for his contributions and service.

"UNC-Chapel Hill would not be the school it is today without David Dansby, Jr.,” he said.

William Wicker, a 1972 graduate of the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, said Dansby advised students after on which courses to enroll in, the best professors to have and which clubs were safe for Black students to join.

Wicker also said Dansby dedicated his career to serving and educating himself on global affairs impacting the Black community.

“I never heard him say anything negative about anybody — always positive, always a smile, always trying to help,” Wicker said. “That’s the kind of person he was.”

@lena-miano

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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