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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Ne Obliviscaris: Alma Shippy and the Racial Integration that Nobody Noticed

I just came across this wonderful story on CNN.com about a young man in 1952 named Alma Shippy, who became the first black man ever to attend Warren Wilson Junior College in Swannanoa, North Carolina — and he did it without a court order, without armed escorts, without mass protests and violence. It's a story that tells us a lot about what really matters when it comes to tearing down the hateful barriers of racism that divide our country. It was no militant march on Warren Wilson's campus that integrated it, no students striking and taking over the college's buildings, no rallies met by police with attack dogs and fire hoses. Instead, it was the realization by the administrators of the school that it was Alma's shared humanity as a creature of God and not his skin color that dignified him, and it was the compassion of the school's students that they realized how much they really had in common with this unassuming young man. Alma Shippy should be an example to us all: he didn't walk around wearing his race on his sleeve and demanding reparations for the discrimination he had faced in life. Rather, he quietly but confidently taught in the Sunday school at his local parish and let the Truth of God's Word and Love, by which all men are made equal and set free, live in his heart, shunning the bitter enmity engendered by racism's deprecation in favor of the peace that comes with accepting Christ's message.

SWANNANOA, North Carolina (AP) -- There is no monument to Alma Shippy.

No plaque describes how, in 1952, the shy teenager packed a bag of clothes, caught a ride in a friend's pickup truck and walked into history on the campus of Warren Wilson Junior College.

It's an obscure vignette in civil rights history. Shippy not only was Warren Wilson's first black student, but one of the few to attend any segregated college or junior college by invitation -- and not by court order and armed escort.

A core of Shippy's family and friends -- some of whom paved his way and some whose path was paved by him -- want wider attention for what they see as a bright moment of brotherhood in one of the South's darkest eras.

"There were no dogs, no guns. He didn't have to be shot at. There was nobody that was beaten up, nobody died because he came here," says Rodney Lytle, a 1974 Warren Wilson graduate and now the school's multicultural adviser. "And that -- that story -- that is beautiful!"

And it didn't happen by chance.

Shippy's presence was the culmination of a decade of work by leaders of Warren H. Wilson Vocational Junior College and Associated Schools, created in 1942 from the merger and expansion of two high schools run by the Presbyterian Church.

Arthur Bannerman, born in Africa to Presbyterian missionaries, was named the school's new president. With new Dean Henry Jensen, he opened the school's doors to a variety of outsiders, starting with two Japanese-American girls from an internment camp in Arizona.

They were missionaries, says Warren Wilson graduate Marvin Lail, with a philosophy of "not just telling you but showing you."

Bannerman began writing to church-connected schools for blacks, seeking a student who might want to come to Warren Wilson. It wasn't until the spring of 1952 that the men learned of Alma Shippy, a 17-year-old who had befriended some Warren Wilson students in local churches where he helped teach Sunday school and Bible classes.

Lail, then 16 years old, was deputized to walk across the Swannanoa Valley to Buckeye Cove -- "truly on the other side of the tracks" -- where Shippy lived with his grandmother, Ludie White. He invited Shippy to speak at the campus evening prayer service.

Jensen watched Shippy's brief address, and afterward joined Lail in asking whether he might like to attend Warren Wilson. Then, as now, students help with their expenses by working at the school. Shippy, who had no money for college, said yes.

"I think he was really taken aback that white men or peers -- I was just a boy -- would come and invite him to a white college," Lail said.

There was a hurdle: The college had one dormitory for male students and Shippy would have to live there. Jensen called a meeting of the 55 Sunderland Hall residents.

Jensen "was a very smart man and was a good speaker and (said), 'We're going to integrate the college and we want it to be sooner rather than later, because it's coming down the road and everything will be integrated,"' Lail recalled.

Listening was Billy Edd Wheeler, about to start his final year at Warren Wilson. He was brilliant and athletic, a popular campus leader who later became an award-winning country music songwriter.

But he knew what it meant to be a misfit -- born poor and illegitimate in a West Virginia coal camp and sent to Warren Wilson four years earlier to appease an unloving stepfather. The question of accepting this stranger struck at his heart.

"I had that ingrained in me, that I could never be better than anybody else," Wheeler said. "I think that was part of it, being able to empathize."

Lail, too, was moved by a childhood spent in the company of black sharecroppers on his family's farm who cared for him as his mother began a slide into mental illness.

"They were very good to me, fed me. I thought, 'Why do we treat these people so bad?"' he said. "I thought, 'This should be changed."'

The vote was 54-1 to accept Shippy. He began classes at Warren Wilson Junior College in the fall of 1952.

Support from classmates

After the first few days, his presence drew little attention on a campus that already housed students from China, Cuba, Europe and South America, Wheeler said.

"It sort of settled into just a routine of life and you didn't think much about it," Wheeler said. "But for the people here in the valley, it was a pretty big deal."

At night, the college phone rang through to Bannerman's home. His 11-year-old daughter, Mary -- now Wheeler's wife -- fielded a couple of calls offering the traditional slur for whites who befriended blacks.

It was "scary, and proud," she recalled. "I can wear that badge of honor."

Classmates did, too. Shippy later told the Asheville Citizen-Times about going to an ice cream parlor in the Swannanoa community with a group of students.

"They sat me in the middle of the booth and that just did not work," he recalled in a 1994 interview. "(The manager) said, 'We can't serve you. You can get it to go and take it outside.' I had a hard time convincing the students not to tear up the place."

Instead, they all left.

The college tried to downplay Shippy's presence. Bannerman was friends with the editor of the Asheville newspaper and asked him to keep it quiet "for safety, for Alma's safety and the students' safety," Mary Bannerman Wheeler said.

The first newspaper story about the school's integration appeared in September 1955. By then, Warren Wilson had five black students and its first black graduate, Georgia Powell, who had earned her associate's degree that spring. And by then, Shippy was long gone; he left after one year, to make some money for his family, his brother Michael said.

He joined the Army, then moved to Indiana, where he married and fathered two girls. Except for occasional correspondence with a few friends, Shippy vanished from Warren Wilson life until 1987.

Reconnecting with campus

Then, his marriage over, he returned to the Swannanoa Valley to care for his aging grandmother, going to work at a state-run long term care facility. He again became active in his church and enthusiastically backed local youth sports teams, sitting behind the umpire at Little League games so he could cheer for both sides.

That's where Rodney Lytle first encountered the stranger who had a silent, but major impact on his life. A friend nudged him and pointed to Shippy. "He's one of you," she said.

Lytle was confused. He had two cousins who attended Warren Wilson in 1959 and knew blacks had gone there for years, well before it became a four-year college in 1967, well before he met his wife there, earned his degree, got his job.

But he had never seen this older man or heard the name Alma Shippy. He walked over and struck up a conversation, "and from that moment on we were friends."

Lytle became Shippy's champion, determined not only to commemorate his accomplishment, but to help him live a more comfortable life.

Though Warren Wilson had long required students to complete service projects to graduate, no one had done anything to help its first black alumnus.

A pair of students organized a crew to fix Shippy's house. In 1994, the college included Shippy in the centennial celebration of its original farm school. And eight years later, on the 50th anniversary of his enrollment, the board of trustees passed a proclamation honoring Shippy, Bannerman, Lail, Jensen and all those involved.

Shippy had prepared a three-page speech, but when he stood to read it, the pages rattled in his shaking hands, Lytle said. He took his seat again and began to cry.

"I can't say anything," he told Lytle. "I'm overwhelmed."

In early December, his friends gathered once more, crowding into the college chapel for a memorial service, a few days after Shippy's death at 72. They are determined that it will not be the last time the school marks his memory.

One former classmate has proposed a scholarship in Shippy's name. Shippy's family, Lytle and other college officials are discussing a permanent memorial -- a marker, or perhaps a tree outside Sunderland Hall -- for Shippy and all those who welcomed him into their lives not because of a court order, but as a matter of fairness and faith.

"This group of people at Warren Wilson College was open-minded and willing to accept Alma not as a colored guy, like they called us then," Michael Shippy said. "They accepted him as a man."

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