Duke University Turned Me Down Because I Am Indian

Courtesy Duke University Archives/flickr/In 1959 Duke University had not started accepting any students of color yet. This image shows students at “An Evening With Sigmund Freud” Hoof ‘n’ Horn in 1959

I really wanted to attend Duke University when I finished high school in 1959.

But they turned me down. I was the valedictorian in my little high school class, but I had to put down my hometown. Since it was Pembroke, North Carolina, they knew I was an Indian, and they were not going to let any Indians, Black people, Asians, Puerto Ricans, or Mexicans in.

I told that story at a meeting of Indian women 10 years ago. One of the ladies came up to me afterward and said, “Dean, I don’t know why you didn’t get into Duke. I got in.”

I said, “What year did you get in?”

She said, “It was 1979.” I said, “Twenty years made a huge difference. They changed their policy and integrated the student body in that period. All the other schools in North Carolina had to do the same thing.” Schools were already integrated when she went through, but she thought it had always been that way. It hadn’t.

She still didn’t believe me. But then she does not have a memory of the racist South. Indian people in Mississippi, South Carolina, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, and other parts of the South could not get into white colleges. They could not vote. They could not marry outside their race. They could not get good jobs. They could not live in certain neighborhoods.

In 1947, this young Lumbee Indian man had enrolled in Wake Forest University, the Baptist school for North Carolina. He had been there one week when a delegation of white men showed up at the president’s office early one morning. Since they were big time important men, he had to see them. His secretary ushered them directly into his office and closed the door behind her.

“What can I help you with this morning?” he asked the delegation.

“You have to get that Indian nigger out of hyur,” the leader said. “If you don’t, you won’t get any more money or our students again.”

The president felt he had to comply. He called the dean in and gave him instructions. “Get the Locklear boy out of here right now,” he allegedly said. The dean went and pulled the young man, who had already earned his BS degree, out of class. He was enrolled in medical school.

“You have to pack and leave the campus this morning,” he told him. The young man, with a broken heart, packed his few clothes and caught the next Greyhound bus home. He never finished medical school. A decade later, Dr. Mark Brooks did finish medical school and came home to serve his people. I went to school with his baby brother Dr. Howard Brooks for 10 years, until I left in 1957. Howard has been the leading pharmacist in Pembroke since the late 1960s. I see him almost every time I go home.

Less than a decade after that incident, my cousin Lonnie Revels Jr. enrolled at Wake Forest and became the first Indian to earn a degree there. They would not let him in directly; apparently they thought he couldn’t make the grade. But they told him if he went to Mars Hill, a junior college, for two years, and got good grades, they would let him into Wake Forest. He did well at Mars Hill, finished at Wake Forest in two years, and served two years in the Army. When he got out, he married Ruth Locklear and ran a successful printing business for the next 40-some years in Greensboro.

One of my mother’s contemporaries was also refused admission into the leading colleges in North Carolina in the early 1900s. He chose to go to Shaw University in Raleigh, one of the historically Black colleges and universities. He became an early teacher in the Indian schools and later became a preacher. His name was Charlie Brewington, and even though Momma looked down her nose at him for having gone to Shaw, I thought he was a great guy.

The legislature in North Carolina, after denying Indians the right to an education for decades, finally let us have our own educational system. Starting as the Indian Normal School in 1887, the school had grown into a high school by the 1920s. By the 1930s it had grown into a two-year college, and by the early 1940s it had grown into a four-year college. My cousin Eugene Chavis finished his two-year degree in the 1930s and started teaching school. But when they added the last two years, he had to go back and get two more years to continue teaching. By the time I started the first grade in 1947, all the teachers at my elementary school had Bachelor of Arts degrees.

Courtesy lumbee.web.unc.edu/Indian State Normal College, formally Croatan Indian Normal School, is present day UNC-Pembroke. The school opened in 1887.

By the early 1960s, the handwriting was on the wall. The college, Pembroke State, would not remain an Indian school for long. The powers that be, the same white men who ran the Indian boy out of Wake Forest in 1947, decided the college would be integrated. But to them integration meant Black kids would be allowed to attend the formerly all-Indian college.

Even though Duke University turned me down in 1959, the University of Richmond admitted me in 1960. I had no money when I finished high school. No one told me I could get free college money through scholarships, so I spent the first five months after high school looking for a job. It was Eisenhower days, not quite as bad as Hoover Days, but bad enough. I finally got a job at Hercules Powder Company in Hopewell, Virginia, and worked hard at that job and farming for the next year.

I worked six days most weeks, and the sixth day was time and a half for overtime. I worked on shares to raise tobacco with W. M. Slate, which made me a few hundred dollars for half a year’s work. I was the only Indian student the whole time at Richmond, and no one did any racist things to me.

I met some great people there, including the alumni secretary, Joseph Nettles. He got me three jobs. I worked in a service station 20 hours on weekends, at the Richmond newspaper, the Times-Dispatch, two nights a week, and bussed dishes in the dining hall six or seven days a week. But after two years there, I ran out of time and money. So I joined the U. S. Air Force to avoid the draft.

I didn’t set the world on fire at Richmond. I had a 2.8 GPA after two years. But I had started to learn how to study, which is a huge help. And during my time in the military I read about 500 books—a huge help.

I was in the military flying B-52s out of Guam during the Viet Nam War, when I met the brother of one of the first white women to attend Pembroke State. They were from Clinton, over in Sampson County, east of us. I was a First Lieutenant and the brother was an Airman Second, meaning he had two stripes. He was friendly because he had to be, since I outranked him, but there was always an edge to his friendliness. He knew he was supposed to outrank me. I saw him on the flight line several times. He was a bomb loader.

Five years later Stanford turned me down. But it had nothing to do with discrimination or racism. Stanford did not want junior transfers, because they would have dual allegiances. They only let 70 junior transfers a year in, and it helped if they could throw a baseball 95 miles an hour or throw a football through a tire at 50 yards.

I applied to nine universities when I left the Air Force in 1968. Eight of them admitted me, and only Stanford turned me down. I chose UC Berkeley, which is one of best choices of my life. But Stanford let me into their graduate school two years later, in 1970, along with 22 Indian freshmen. I skidded in with about a 3.5 GPA my last two years of college at Berkeley.

Stanford had finally decided to go all out to recruit Indian students. They sent out two teams of recruiters to Indian country in 1969-70. They talked to hundreds of students, and admitted 22. Those kids were some of the brightest students I have ever met. Dr. Lorenzo Starrs was the leader; he is a medical doctor in Sioux Falls, South Dakota now. Corrine Garza has been the manager of her tribe in Alaska, the Tlingit-Haida. Lissa Laird is a college administrator in Oklahoma.

Duke University finally integrated its student body by allowing Black students to enroll in 1963. It had started the process in 1948, with a petition from students in the divinity school. But they dragged their feet for 15 years, and finally had to cave in 1963. It was too late for me. I was already in the Air Force, going though Aviation Cadet training at James Connelly Air Force Base in Waco, Texas in 1963 and 1964. From Connelly I went to Mather AFB in Sacramento for bombardier training. Then it was off to Turner AFB in Albany, Georgia and Columbus, AFB Mississippi, along with four tours in Guam, Okinawa, and Thailand in the Viet Nam War.

Courtesy Duke University Archives/flickr/Duke University began segregating in 1963 with five black students. This image of the Allen Building study-in was taken in 1967.

Duke finally admitted Indian students a few years later. I don’t know who it was, or what happened, but I wish them Godspeed. I just wish I could have gotten in. There is still a hole in my heart over their rejection of me.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship program for Native college students. Over 78 percent of CTD scholarship winners have earned a college degree, from BA/BS to MBA and Ph.D. CTD also makes grants to Indian schools for school improvement. Contact him at CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com for scholarship and grant information. He has helped over 1,200 Native students win over copy $5 million in scholarships and get into Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Columbia, Brown, Yale, and UCLA.