CHAPEL HILL, N.C.— Three distinguished University of North Carolina alumni were looking forward to doing something Saturday that they never could when they were students: watching the Tar Heels play football in the company of people of all races.
When John Brandon and the brothers Ralph and LeRoy Frasier became the first three Black undergraduates at Chapel Hill, football games were still segregated by race, as were most public places in North Carolina.
Now, 55 years after a federal court allowed them to register for classes by overturning the university’s racist admissions policy, the three are returning to be celebrated as pioneers by a UNC where the most famous alumnus is Michael Jordan and which has more Black students enrolled than any other major research institution.
“Those days were probably the most stressful of my life,” said Ralph Frasier, 72, during a visit Friday to campus. “I can’t say that I have many happy memories.”
For some of those joining the celebration, the anniversary isn’t only a chance to commemorate the bravery of three Durham teenagers who stood up to Jim Crow laws just a year after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state’s NAACP chapter, was the speaker at a dinner praising the three as heroes Friday night. Barber sees their situation as a lesson in a time when issues of racial diversity in public schools have turned into a fiery public debate in Wake County.
“We need to remember history, but not to become angry or bitter,” Barber told The Associated Press. “But by plumbing the depths of history, we can recognize the obstructions that try to stop the flow of justice.”
The Wake County Board of Education voted this year to scrap the school’s longstanding plan that aimed to achieve socio-economic balance in student populations through busing. The legacy of the civil rights movement has been contested ground in the debate, with advocates of ending the policy invoking the example of Martin Luther King Jr., a comparison that has outraged Barber and other critics of the new policy.
For the Frasiers and Brandon, though, that momentous day in 1955 can seem very distant from the present day. As important as it was, none of the three have any distinct memories from it.
“We were kids,” said LeRoy Frasier, 73. “I was probably thinking about when we were going to eat.”
All three were students at Durham’s Hillside High School when they applied to UNC-Chapel Hill in 1955. Their applications were denied, and the Board of Trustees swiftly passed a resolution barring the admission of Blacks as undergraduates. The law school had been integrated four years earlier after a federal lawsuit.
A federal court in Greensboro then struck down the racist policy for undergraduates, and the three young men – two were 18, while Ralph turned 17 on the day of the court decision – registered for classes.
“It’s one of three or four critical events in the eventual unraveling of segregation in North Carolina,” said Archie Ervin, the university’s chief diversity officer. “It signaled a change that now African-Americans could enroll at the flagship institution.”
On that distant September day, the three didn’t encounter the angry mobs or politicians standing in the doorways of college buildings that greeted other Blacks integrating colleges in the South, but they quickly learned there were places they couldn’t go, and people who wouldn’t be seen with them.
“There were some people who were friendly, but there was reluctance on the part of some who didn’t feel comfortable having their friends see them being friendly to us,” Ralph Frasier said.
All three eventually moved away from North Carolina. Ralph Frasier splits his time between Jacksonville, Fla. and Columbus, Ohio; his brother, LeRoy, lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Brandon lives in Houston.
The men are touched by the weekend of tributes, but accolades were far from their minds in 1955.
“I didn’t think of myself as a hero or anything like that,” Brandon said. “I’m understanding more about what it meant now than when it was occurring.”