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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Andrew Best, April 19, 1997. Interview R-0011. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Desegregating East Carolina University

Best recalls convincing the president of East Carolina University to desegregate the school in the early 1960s. Best chose a single, high-achieving student to be the vanguard of a broader integration. While the student endured some verbal abuse, Best deemed her first year at the university a success. Both the white and black communities needed to be "softened up" before they accepted integration, Best recalls. The gradual introduction of black students into ECU softened up whites, while an information campaign softened up the black community.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Andrew Best, April 19, 1997. Interview R-0011. 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

The third jewel in the crown of desegregation was when I was able to persuade Dr. [Leo] Jenkins [President of Eastern Carolina University] to desegregate the university without a court order. All of these things were following a trend, the wind was blowing in a certain direction to get public accommodations desegregated, to get the hospital desegregated, and of course, the schools were in the evolutionary process of desegregation themselves. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
You had started to tell me about desegregating ECU without a court order.
ANDREW BEST:
It so happened that Dr. Jenkins and I had developed a very cordial relationship. I approached Dr. Jenkins about desegregating the university, and said, "Why can't we go on and desegregate this university without a court order?" This was in the early '60s also. The public schools were under[going] desegregation, but we had been able to desegregate public accommodations and the hospital. During the same time frame, the schools were desegregating after Julius Chambers [NAACP legal counsel] had gotten Judge McMillan to implement the desegregation order in Charlotte by busing. I went to Leo as a friendߞwe were close enough so in private conversations, we called each other by first name. Dr. Jenkins had several concerns. At that time, Chapel Hill and [NC] State were under court order to desegregate. He said, "First of all, it would be more damaging to our image to admit a minority student who couldn't cut it"ߞthat was his way of saying, who didn't have the background or equipment to survive or achieve, who would flunk out, in other words. "We wouldn't want that." At that time, I was conducting an enrichment program for high school students on a volunteer basis every week. We would run a 14-week course from the latter part of February to April. He had some knowledge of this project, and I said, "I have students who come to me every Wednesday from Goldsboro on the west, all the way to Elizabeth City on the east. I know of at least five to seven hundred black students who can "cut it," using his term, by name. So that's no problem. Then he mentioned his second concern was, "You remember the James Meredith situation down in Mississippi?" He was concerned about the reaction of those die-hard segregationists, who he called the "rednecks." I said that I had considered this. "The student I'm going to recommend lives here in Pitt County, so she has a right to be here. I have already made arrangement with her father for her to stay at home, she lives about 18 miles away, and he's going to give her a car so she can commute from home to school. By that first year, I'm thinking that students will become so accustomed to a black face being around that it will kind of soften up the will of the rednecks." So he thought for a minute, and told me to have her apply. I had the young lady apply, her name was Laura Marie Leary, and she was admitted. To really satisfy Dr. Jenkins, I said, "I'm giving her a key to my house, so that my house can be her home away from home. If the weather's bad, she can come, and if I've got one slice of bread, she can have half of it." Laura Marie went through with flying colors. There were one or two mild incidents where she was walking across the campus, and somebody would do a catcall, "There goes a nigger," or something like that. But essentially without incident. Nothing happened that she could not deal with. She didn't run into what those female cadets ran into down at the Citadel, with hazing and making life so miserable that they withdrew. Laura persisted and went on through. She represented a crack in the door, and the next year, the door opened wider. We had maybe four or five dozen minority students come in. After that, we had participation in football and basketball for the black athletes, and all of those barriers vanished. Not one single undesirable incident happened in this whole process, and that says something about a rural, eastern North Carolina community.
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
Eastern North Carolina has a reputation for being hard-line.
ANDREW BEST:
But a lot of the credit goes to people like Dr. Malene Irons, Dick Ottaway, Ed Waldrop, and many others who were of the same mind and mentality, that once the core of leadership, including me and some other folks, presented something that was feasible and would be productive for the community, we were able to persuade enough people to buy into it so we made it work.
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
Sounds like there was a lot of cooperation going on.
ANDREW BEST:
To show you some of the things we participated in to soften up the black community, we publishedߞ
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
That's interesting, the black community also had to be softened up.
ANDREW BEST:
Yeah. We published a full-page article in the Daily Reflector [the local Greenville newspaper] called "Our Thing." I was the chief author, but others contributed. I'll have my secretary mail you a copy. What I did was to go through at each level, what the teachers' attitude should be, what the superintendent's and the students' and the parents' attitudes should be in this whole context of desegregation. You heard me mention this volunteer project where I was talking with the students? The background of that whole project was to give these minority students some type of what I call "correlative education," where we correlate the importance of every subject in the curriculum. For example, if I'd give a child a question that dealt with a decimal, I was real hard if that decimal point was in the wrong place. I said the difference in a decimal point could be ten dollars or a hundred dollars. You've lost 90 dollars. I'd make it sound real dramatic. We'd also try to emphasize spelling and capitalization. What I was really doing is giving this black child something he hadn't gotten in his formal education to prepare him to compete and survive in a desegregated society. That was an observation on my part, and a lot of other people believed in the same thing. So we had this enrichment program to try to prepare. All of those things fit together, Karen, to ease what could have been problems in the whole desegregation process in the schools.
KAREN KRUISE THOMAS:
So it sounds like the community leaders tried to anticipate problems.
ANDREW BEST:
Anticipate, that's exactly it.