March 5, 2009

A Step Away from 1918-1919: The College of William and Mary's First African American Coeds

In the Fall 1967, almost fifty years after the first women students were allowed to matriculate, the College of William and Mary welcomed its first residential African American coeds. The university had admitted its first African American student, Hulon Willis, in March 1951. After Willis, William and Mary admitted two more students of African descent in the 1950s, including one woman in 1955, who withdrew from the institution at the end of the academic year. It was sixteen years later for anything approaching a "mass" number of black students to matriculate at the College, at the same time. The three African American coeds were Karen Ely, Lynn Briley, and Janet Brown.

Images from the Colonial Echo, the College of William and Mary yearbook

When the young women came to campus, the only other African American students on campus were three undergraduate men who were attending part-time and one graduate student. The young women were interviewed by Nadia Tongour in the October 1967 issue of the student newspaper The Flat Hat. The women discussed why they applied to William and Mary, the social attitudes they encountered, and their views on the current state of black political activism. Roommates, the women mentioned their curiosity about how white people lived and realizing that there were no significant differences, Karen Ely said, "I've been surprised at how little difference there is. I expected a much more different transition from a completely segregated high school to a predominantly white college."

The Flat Hat article is an example of how socially and culturally aware African Americans were in America, particularly during the 1960s. Ms. Ely commented how surprised she was about the lack of social and class competition at the university. Many people think black Americans are only concerned with racial issues, but as this comment demonstrates that in addition to race, class was and continues to be a big issue with African Americans.

One comment that stands out in the article, which could also apply to the contemporary social atmosphere at William and Mary, is the lack of discussion about race. Janet Brown stated "I wish that people would feel freer about discussing race relations with us. They seem to shy away from the subject." If the reader did not know the article was from 1967, they might think Ms. Brown is talking about William and Mary in the twenty-first century.

The new students were from the Hampton Roads area, according to the 1968 Colonial Echo. Janet Brown was from Newport News and both Karen Ely and Lynn Briley were from Portsmouth.Their respective majors were Elementary Education (Brown), English (Briley), and Biology (Ely). As far as student organizations, an area always high on the list of interests to William and Mary students, Janet Brown was a member of the Young Democrats and the Black Students Organization. Lynn Briley was also a member of the Black Students Organization. In addition to her participation in the Black Students Organization, Karen Ely also participated in the Chorus.

This post was composed by Jeffreen Hayes.

For additional information about the first women students at the College of William and Mary see: When Mary Entered with her Brother William: Women at the College of William and Mary, 1918-1945 by Laura F. Parrish; "The Petticoat Invasion": Women at the College of William and Mary, 1918-1945; The Martha Barksdale Papers; and the Women at the College of William and Mary page on the Special Collections Research Center Wiki.

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