UNC Pembroke celebrated a group of pioneering students on March 27.
A part of UNCP’s ongoing 125th anniversary celebration, the African American Firsts program featured a panel of seven graduates, including Larry Barnes, who was the first African American student to enroll at UNCP in 1967, and Sylvia Baugham Banks, the first graduate in 1969.
Panelists from left: Renee Steele, Alice Melvin, Larry Barnes, Delthine Watson, Howard McLeod, Sylvia Baugham Banks and Larry Rodgers
Alphonso McRae, a 1974 graduate and panel moderator, said “this group came to the university aspiring to change their lives and ended up changing the lives of every one they touched.”
They were the first African-American basketball players, track stars, student government presidents and Miss PSUs too. They paved the way for a university, that was founded in 1887 to serve American Indians, to become one of the most diverse institutions of higher education in the U.S.
“I didn’t realize the magnitude of what we were doing,” said Renee Steele, a 1993 graduate. “The morning after I won the Miss PSU title, Dr. E.B. Turner held my picture up before the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Lumberton.”
Alice Melvin, a 1995 graduate and charter member of the first African American sorority on campus, agreed with Steele.
“We did not know at the time that we were making history,” Melvin said. “We did not know we were blazing a trail for so many Zeta Phi Betas and other sororities for the future. We just had fun, but I’m a better person for it.”
When McRae asked family members of the panelists to stand, a large contingent of current Zetas stood up and applauded.
To a person, members of the panel said they were personally driven to succeed, but they also had the support of their families and the university community. Most of the panelists were also the first members of their family to attend college, including Larry Rodgers.
“Long before they invented the saying that UNCP is ‘where education gets personal,’ there was that personal touch from coaches, professors and administrators,” said Rodgers, a 1973 graduate. An all-American runner, Rodgers became the first African-American head coach in university history.
Howard McLeod shares a story as Alice Melvin looks on.
Howard McLeod was one of the first African-American basketball players at UNCP. He was literally recruited off the playground by assistant basketball coach Dr. Ed. Crain.
“Before coming to Pembroke, I had worked for six years to help support my family,” McLeod said. “My parents sent me here and told me not to let them down; I was determined, and that’s why I spent 40 years in the public schools.”
When asked if he had a message for the current generation of students, Barnes advised them to be involved on a campus and to get to know their professors.
“Also, you need to know that you belong here and can compete here,” Barnes said. “This university has to be a mirror of the community it serves.”
Steele remembered the “F” she got on her very first exam. She was discouraged by the grade, but she rewrote the exam, and her professor took the time to review it and encourage her.
“I ended up with an ‘A’ in that course, and graduated cum laude,” Steele said. “It’s up to you how you pick yourself up after a setback.”
Barnes, who said he was unprepared for the rigors of college, was put on academic probation. “I am not ashamed to say that. My challenge was within me,” he said. “It’s not about the setbacks; it’s about what you do about it. I convinced myself that I could compete, and thank god I did.”
Sylvia Baugham Banks, UNCP’s first African American graduate, talks while Larry Barnes, the first African American student, listens
An Elizabethtown, N.C., native, Banks said when she enrolled at UNCP in 1967, she had already failed at her first attempt at college.
“I am not sure how I felt about things when I got here, but I know I wanted an education,” Banks said. “I did not have a social life, but I felt completely at home at UNCP.”
A question about social life drew a varied response from the panel. Delphine Watson, a 1984 graduate and the first female African American student government president, said she came from a poor rural county like Robeson and worked in factories before going to college.
“I had a lot in common with the students in Pembroke,” Watson said. “We had all been out in the field picking beans. I connected with many people with different perspectives.
“I came to college thinking it would be fun,” Watson said. “I enjoyed the dances, and I like being in the mix.”
Watson remembered the distinguished speakers who came to campus, like civil rights leader Julian Bond. A dinner with visiting jazz great Dizzy Gillespie was a highlight of her college experience.
Barnes, who grew up just five miles from campus, said he knew the name of every student who lived on campus. But his social life consisted of breakfast lunch and dinner at the cafeteria.
“I went to the dances,” Barnes said. “We did the best we could.”
Rodgers immersed himself in athletics and enjoyed watching some great wrestling and baseball teams.
Yolanda Sinclair, a 1998 graduate and president of the Black Alumni Council, thanked the panel.
“We are able to celebrate the 125th anniversary because of people like you,” Sinclair said. “I had never thought about how we got here or the trails you blazed. Thank you.”
Chancellor Kyle R. Carter said “the world needs good leaders; people who dare to take risks and be the first.”
“The role you played continues to have a positive effect on the future of UNCP,” Chancellor Carter said.
The event was sponsored by the 125th Anniversary Committee, the Office of Multicultural and Minority Affairs and the Office of Alumni Relations.