Nannette Smith was just a kid when she broke the color barrier at a previously all-white elementary school in Baltimore. And that experience led her to Howard University and life as an activist in what then was the nascent civil rights movement.
“I desegregated the schools in Baltimore when I was in the fourth grade, nine years old,” she said. “And when I finished high school my dad wanted me to apply to Radcliffe and I said, “No. I do not want to go to another predominantly white school. I'm not going, I'm not going to apply and you can't make me.”
So, she went to Howard in Washington, where she says she “got to know black history, black pride.”
Smith was among a group of alumni of historically black colleges and universities who told their stories during a Black History Month reception at a public library in rural Virginia.
In that era in parts of the country, HBCUs were often the only schools blacks were allowed to attend, which means they were important in producing some of the nation’s most prominent black academics, intellectuals and entrepreneurs.
“When I graduated from high school, which was 1955, I was 15-years-old and there were no white colleges in Texas that would accept black students,” recalled Joe M. Thompson, who grew up in Texas. “So, my only choice was to go to an HBCU or go out of state.
He graduated from his mother's alma mater, Prairie View A & M University in Prairie View, Texas.
Smith recalled how some states even paid to keep black students out of their colleges.
“When I was a freshman at Howard I dated a guy who was from Birmingham, Alabama,” she said. “Once a month we had money to go out and do up dinner very nicely, because the state of Alabama sent him a check to keep him from applying to the state college there.”
Smith went on to teach at Bennett College, a private liberal arts school for women in Greensboro, N.C. She said some of her students had a role in the famous Greensboro lunch counter sit-in by four black students from nearby North Carolina A & T State University.
That sort of demonstration “was not considered lady-like to do that at the time, so they got the guys from A & T,” she said to laughter.
While that sit in was relatively peaceful, Thompson recalled an incident at a bus station when he was a graduate student in Texas trying to get home.
“I would take the bus home during the time of the civil rights movement and they opened up the waiting rooms by law,” he said. “But no one was going from Texas Southern. So, I go in and sit in the room and they tried to kill me. I had to run and hide for my life.”
It was that threat of violence that led Queen Jordan’s worried parents to call her with a warning when she was a student at Winston-Salem State in North Carolina.
“I was in school at the time when they were sitting in over at the lunch counter and my daddy was telling my mother, ‘Call Queen and tell her she better not get into that mess,’” Jordan said. “No, I did not participate in that.”
Smith, on the other hand, says she was involved in several protests until her parents ordered her away from one at Washington National Airport and back to her studies.
“I was jailed and pushed in the gutter and called names and what not,” she said. “And they even had sit-ins out at the airport.”
But then her mother called her at Howard.
“And she said, ‘No, you are not going to sit on the runway. You have done your part while you were in high school,” Smith recounted.
She said her mother told her to stay in college and get an education because “I'm not getting you out of jail anymore.’”