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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, December 13, 1990. Interview L-0064-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

UNC as an "icebox" for African American (and women) students

Pollitt discusses what it was like for African American and women law students at the University of North Carolina during the late 1950s and 1960s. In particular, he emphasizes how Henry Frye and Julius Chambers, two African American law students, described the atmosphere at UNC as that of an "icebox" for African Americans. Pollitt offers several anecdotes in order to illustrate his point and then argues that he imagines women students probably felt the same, although they did not let it prohibit them from fully participating in classroom or extracurricular activities.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, December 13, 1990. Interview L-0064-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

So you only had those three women?
Yes. So there were very few women and there were very, very few blacks. The blacks hated the place. They called it the "icebox". A little story. Henry Frye graduated maybe in 1960 or something like that and he's now on the state Supreme Court. He had been the first black legislator since reconstruction. And he was on the Law Review and had been an Army captain before he came to law school. Well, the President of the student body whose name I forget, but he was from Roxboro wanted to talk to Henry Frye about the Barrister's Ball. The Barrister's Ball was a long dress affair at a night club somewhere and they wouldn't take the blacks. So what do you do with the few black people; law students? You can't say, "You can't come." And if you don't do it there you do it at the Country Club or somewhere. I don't know, but it was less convenient. So they had to talk to the blacks every year about the Barrister's Ball and they teased a little bit. They'd say, "Gee, my wife's been looking forward to this." Ultimately, they would all say, "Well, my cousin is getting married and we can't be here anyway." So they never went. But every year there was this thing. So the guy wanted to talk to Henry Frye about it and he asked me if I could have lunch with the two of them in Lenoir Hall because he did not want to be seen having lunch with a black person. Now this was the President of the student body of the law school in 1960. He wanted a faculty person present so, you know, it was sort of official business or something.
What did you say?
Sure. I mean, you can't fight everything. And I never said anything about it to anybody. That was not the sole attitude, but it was certainly a prevailing attitude. Henry Frye and Julius Chambers both told me that they had not exchanged a pleasantry or a good word with at least half of their classmates in three years that they were here. So they call it the "icebox" or something. And there would always be maybe two or three or four students here at any given time and their social life was over at N.C. Central. We had a Mr. Pollack, Don Pollack, who was here with Julius Chambers or a year after maybe, and he was six feet eight or nine and weighed 250 pounds. He would come to the library at night to study and he'd leave at 10:00 and he'd have parked his car two blocks away somewhere and he'd walk to his car and all the coeds would see him and start screaming or running. Here it's dark and here comes this six foot ten black man walking toward them. And you know, he said, "You think I'm a gorilla or something?" You don't have to be ultrasensitive to feel that this may not be the place for you. So it was very, very hard on the handful of blacks that we had during the sixties and seventies and I assume it was very hard on the women to be the only woman in a classroom of seventy or something. Or one of three women.
Do you remember if they would participate as much in class?
Well, yes. The fact is Doris Bray was an early woman and she was the Editor in Chief of the Law Review. And then Joan somebody followed her. So I don't know whether it was because of different admission standards or not, but certainly we had two successive women editors of the Law Review and then Susan Eringhous was the number two in her class to Gordon Gray and he was the editor and she was associate editor. She was one of four or five women in her class if that many. So the women did well. In class participation probably not. And again, I think that most of the women were from North Carolina and maybe they'd gone to…. I know Susan Eringhous had gone to St. Mary's which may not mean much to the general audience, but that's sort of, not flower arranging, but how to be a nice Southern woman as well as to learn, to cultivate your brain. So the cultural pattern is not to be aggressive, but rather to listen to everybody else first and then see if you can contribute something. So that was sort of the pattern.