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Archives Spring 2001

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The Road to Inclusion

A Historic Perspective on the Experiences of Women and African Americans at Carolina

When Carolina opened its doors in 1795, its primary purpose was to provide undergraduate training for North Carolina’s youth — who were defined at the time as young, white male citizens of North Carolina. Even after the University broadened its curriculum in the 1850s to include post-graduate work, its student body continued to be limited to this privileged group. Only after many years and much debate would other students, such as women and African Americans, gain admittance to Carolina.

During the 19th century, general interest in women’s higher education increased rapidly as women’s colleges and co-educational facilities sprang up across the country. Carolina, however, was not quick to open its doors to women. Although administrators occasionally allowed faculty daughters to sit in on lectures, neither academic credits nor degrees accompanied participation. This meant that even though a handful of women were able to attend classes, they were not actually enrolled at the University and therefore, set no legal precedent for admitting other women on either the graduate or undergraduate level.

While this situation was common throughout the South, it did not necessarily mean that North Carolina educators were wholly opposed to educating women. In the years following the Civil War, a tremendous need for teachers arose as the state instituted its first mandatory public school system. However, most educators believed the solution lay not in admitting women to Carolina but rather, in creating a separate women’s college. As historian Amy Thompson McCandless explains, “Accustomed to single-gender institutions for white men, Southern educators preferred to establish separate schools for white women, just as they later would for African Americans, rather than admitting them to existing colleges or universities.”

In line with this new, separate-schools trend, the Normal and Industrial School at Greensboro opened its doors in 1891. Although this women’s school clearly provided professional training, it lacked the funds and faculty essential for upper level and graduate study. Consequently, as the century came to a close, the demand for advanced educational opportunities for women mounted in North Carolina and across the country. Throughout the 1890s, public attention increasingly turned to the admittance of women to all-male universities and graduate schools. Moreover, in the midst of this national debate, a major turning point occurred when six of the nation’s foremost universities — Yale, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Brown, Stanford, and the University of Chicago — decided to admit women to their graduate programs.

Undoubtedly influenced by these developments in higher education, Carolina President Edwin A. Alderman (1896-1900) announced in January of 1897, “One whose mind is upon educational questions cannotlonger hesitate to deal frankly with the duty of educa-tional institutions to womanhood. I believe that this University at the earliest time practicable should open its post-graduate courses to the women of the state.” The following month, in accordance with Alderman’s recommendations, the trustees decided to admit women to post-graduate courses.

By broadly defining the term “post-graduate,” Alderman was able to justify the inclusion of women who had graduated from two-year schools who desired to complete their junior and senior years, as well as women who had already earned their Bachelor’s degrees and sought graduate training. As a result, a handful of women gained admittance to Carolina that year. Shortly thereafter, in 1898, Sallie Stockard became the first Carolina woman to receive her Bachelor’s degree, and the following year, two Smith College graduates, Katherine Ahern and Mary Pearson Kendrick earned the first Master of Arts degrees granted to women. Twenty-five years later, in 1924, Irene Dillard and Anna Forbes Liddell received the first Ph.D.s awarded to women at Carolina.

But when University administrators finally admitted women to Carolina, they accepted only a select group of women. African-American women — as well as African-American men — would have to wait more than 50 years before gaining admittance. Ironically, at approximately the same time white women at Carolina finally began to make inroads, African Americans experienced an enormous setback: in 1896 the United States Supreme Court announced its ruling in the landmark Plessy vs. Ferguson case, which upheld the
constitutionality of segregation and thus, the exclusion of African Americans from all-white institutions such as Carolina. The Court’s ruling in Plessy effectively codified the doctrine of “separate but equal,” which in turn dictated the educational experiences of African Americans for the next half-century. African Americans aspiring to attend college within the state found that, because of their race, they were not eligible for admission to Carolina, since “comparable” facilities existed at all-Black schools such as North Carolina A&T College at Greensboro and North Carolina College for Negroes at Durham.

Over the course of several decades, it slowly became apparent that “separate but equal” facilities could not be offered in all areas of study, particularly when separate facilities simply did not exist: the medical school at Carolina, for example, was the only public one in the
state. In the wake of several court cases recognizing the unconstitutionality of race-based segregation in such situations — including one that resulted in the admittance of four African-American students to Carolina’s law school — the Carolina Board of Trustees met on April 4, 1951, and resolved, “In all cases of application for admission by members of racial groups other than the white race to professional or graduate schools, when such schools are not provided by and in the State of North Carolina for such racial groups, the application shall be processed without regard to race or color.”

Shortly thereafter, in its 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education decision, the United States Supreme Court essentially reversed the Plessy decision, ruling against the constitutionality of the “separate but equal” doctrine and, in effect, formally ending segregation in education. The first African-American graduate student at Carolina enrolled in the fall of 1955 and by 1960, 11 African Americans had received Master’s degrees; four years later, in 1964, William Darity became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Carolina.

Since the Brown decision, efforts by University leaders and faculty to open access to all people have resulted in remarkable success, given its historical legacy. Many Graduate School deans, among others, have played important roles in recruiting an inclusive and diverse graduate student body. Currently, 25 percent of Carolina’s graduate and professional students represent minority groups, and approximately 59 percent of Carolina’s graduate and professional students are women.

Although Carolina’s road to inclusion has been sinuous, today’s Graduate School at Carolina is dedicated to ensuring an inclusive and diverse graduate student population.

-Laura Micheletti

© 2002, The Graduate School, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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