First black undergrad comments on modern diversity push
March 14, 2008
While diversity has increased at the College since the 1960s, it has come with struggle.
p. Oscar Blayton became the first black undergraduate student at the College when he enrolled in 1963.
p. The circumstances under which he enrolled were unusual.
p. “I had not actually planned to go to William and Mary. I had already paid my room deposit at Howard University in the summer of ’63 and had planned to attend Howard,” Blayton said. “However, I did not have a job during the summer of ’63 and with time on my hands, I decided to engage in some mischief one day. I knew that William and Mary had a policy of not admitting African Americans because my sister had tried to attend a summer session a few years earlier and had been denied admittance in a one-sentence letter that informed her simply that William and Mary did not admit ‘negroes.’”
p. With this knowledge, Blayton paid an unannounced visit to the Dean of Admissions, then Robert Hunt. Blayton playfully demanded that he be considered for enrollment, offering Hunt his SAT scores and high school transcript. The dean listened to him for a few minutes, then eventually escorted Blayton out of his office.
p. Blayton left feeling triumphant.
p. “I did not think that he would consider admitting me — I just wanted to give him a hard time,” he said. “I had accomplished what I had set out to do — that is, hassle a segregated institution.”
Blayton was surprised when, weeks later, Hunt called and asked him to bring his parents to his office. However, Blayton felt the dean’s change of heart was not completely venerable.
p. “I was watching the television during the day and there was a live broadcast of [Alabama] Governor George Wallace standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama building and refusing to allow an African-American woman to enter,” Blayton said.
p. During this infamous event, U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach read a statement to Wallace that had been prepared by President John F. Kennedy. The statement reminded Wallace that public universities could only receive funding if they desegregated.
p. “While this discussion was taking place on television the phone rang in my home and it was Dean Hunt on the line,” Blayton said.
Hunt met with Blayton and his parents and told them that the College would accept Blayton if he agreed to live off campus. Blayton accepted his offer.
p. “The only reason I agreed to attend William and Mary was to end segregation there,” he said.
p. Blayton said his experiences at the College were challenging.
“While many of the students and faculty at William and Mary were polite to me, many were not,” he said. “The President of the College, Davis Y. Pascall, never spoke to me during the two years that I was there, and it is my recollection that he would turn his head and ignore me whenever we happened to pass each other on campus.”
p. Blayton later joined the football team in order to make friends and, for the most part, his teammates were friendly. However, unbeknownst to him, the football coaches of the freshmen team went to visit his father. They told him that Blayton should quit the football team because some of the varsity players planned to injure him during scrimmages. Blayton’s father said that his son “would be okay.”
p. Blayton’s experiences at the College ended when he was put on academic probation and suspended for two semesters.
p. “During that period of probation, I was drafted into the Marine Corps,” Blayton said. “I became a carrier-qualified combat pilot in the Marine Corps and wound up staying for six years before returning to college as a full time student at the University of Maryland.”
p. Years later, Blayton still harbors doubts about the College’s efforts to increase diversity.
p. “My time spent at William and Mary was one of the most unpleasant experiences in my life … [and] the fact that President Nichol has been driven from office is evidence to me that the College is still a place of intolerance with very little interest in diversity.”
p. Thursday, Feb. 28, a panel entitled “A 315 Year Endeavor: The State of Diversity at the College of William & Mary” was held at the University Center. The six panelists were Board of Visitors members Kathy Hornsby ’79 and John Charles Thomas; English Professor Terry Meyers; Norfolk State University history Professor Cassandra Newby-Alexander Ph.D. ’92; religious studies Professor Tamara Sonn; and Hulon Willis Jr., a College alumnus and the son of Willis Sr,, who in 1956 was the first graduate student at the College. The purpose of the forum, according to mediator Ashley Shuler ’08, was to “explore issues of diversity in the context of the College of William and Mary.”
p. One attendee asked the panelists to define diversity. Sonn said that diversity is not merely tolerance of those who are different, but acceptance of those who are different and the realization that everyone can “benefit from diversity.” Newby-Alexander defined diversity as “shared ownership” of the College — students must not see those from different backgrounds as “unwelcome visitors.”
The two BOV members repeatedly stated that they supported diversity on campus. However, Thomas also said that students played a key role in increasing diversity.
p. “I think much of what happens here has to do with the student … that’s what this is about. When the other students come here, that’s when the rubber meets the road,” he said. “We don’t know what happens in the dorms. We don’t know what happens in the University Center. You guys know what happens here. So, in your hearts, if you want your school to be diverse and be open, you have to be diverse and open when you greet new students coming here. I think that’s what I see here. But a lot rests in your hands.”
p. His view was echoed by many of the panelists.
p. “If you have a core group of dedicated people who want to see change, who are determined to effect change, there is nothing you can do stop that core group of people,” Newby-Alexander said. “And, unfortunately, the majority of people are followers, not leaders. They need a voice to tell them where to go, how to get there, what will be there when they arrive. So far, that voice of diversity is not as loud as the voice fearing diversity. And I would say get loud. Get organized. Get determined.”