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Honoring an alum who was also a civil rights pioneer

Warren Wilson Junior College's first black student was invited to attend in 1952 -- no fighting, no court order.

February 25, 2007|Margaret Lillard | Associated Press Writer

SWANNANOA, N.C. — 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 was Warren Wilson's first black student, and one of the few to attend any segregated college or junior college by invitation rather than court order and armed escort.

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 advisor. "And that -- that story -- that is beautiful!"

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, 17, 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 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.

'Scary, and proud'

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.

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