Last week, history came full circle in Cullowhee.
Back in 1957 a young student by the name of Levern Hamlin made history when she enrolled as the first African-American student at Western Carolina College, now Western Carolina University.
Hamlin sought to further her education at WCC for the simple reason that it offered the courses she needed. She wasn’t out to make a statement; she was out to get an education.
But the environment in the South in 1957, shortly after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that ruled school segregation was illegal, was charged. Efforts to break the racial barrier were met with resistance in many places, and violence in some.
There was a quirk to the application process at Western: No photo ID was required. Speaking on the Cullowhee campus last Thursday, Levern Hamlin Allen said of those who did, “I never heard back from.”
Western Carolina’s Board of Trustees became aware Hamlin was an African-American, but took steps to accept her application.
And thus history was made. From the June 13, 1957 edition of the Sylva Herald:
“Negro woman enrolls at Western Carolina
A Negro woman was among 758 students enrolled for summer school at Western Carolina College when classes began on the Cullowhee campus Tuesday, June 11.
This is believed to be a precedent in the integration of the races in smaller state-supported schools in the South.
Levern Hamilton is a native of Roanoke, Va., and is an honor graduate of the class of 1956 from Hampton Institute, Hampton, Va. The institute has one of the highest academic ratings in the country.
After earning her Bachelor of Science degree in education, she was employed by the Mecklenburg County Public Schools as a speech therapist, where she has been for one year (in Charlotte).
Miss Hamlin told Western Carolina College officials that she wrote the State Department for a suggested list of schools in the state where she could take work in special education for a certificate in the field of education. Upon receiving the list, she applied to Western Carolina College.
Reports are that after the first day at WCC, students have nicely accepted Miss Hamlin on the campus. At the cafeteria Tuesday evening several students were seen to approach Miss Hamlin and speak in a friendly manner to her.
She is said to be of exemplary character and intelligence. A college official said Miss Hamlin has a nice disposition, she is not aggressive but ambitious and has a great deal of humility.
She will live on the campus in Robertson Hall, where she has an apartment. Except during summer sessions, the dormitory is used for housing men students.
Summer school at WCC is a multi-phased operation, with a program designed to accommodate students from pre-school through the Master of Arts degree.”
The article was accompanied by an editorial that essentially told everyone to just stay calm.
“Integration at WCC
Jackson County and Western North Carolina, as well as other areas in the Southland where institutions of higher learning have experienced integration of the races, will see mixed emotions and reactions to the decision of the Board of Trustees of Western Carolina College to admit a Negro woman to its graduate school.
Jackson County folk are strong individualists, a feeling of all Southerners. They are bedded deep in tradition. But this is a time to stop and think, to be rational, and to carefully weigh the situation before making judgment of the board’s decision. It is also a time to remember that we are Christians, and as such we have an obligation.
The University of North Carolina has accepted Negroes in its graduate and undergraduate schools, and just this summer Women’s College in Greensboro accepted Negro women.
These are all state-supported schools, just as Western Carolina College is a state-supported school. Integration in institutions of higher learning in North Carolina thus far has been met with ‘apathy’ by a majority of her citizens, and students themselves have been reported ‘indifferent’ to the situation.
We feel that the Board of Trustees, in accepting a Negro in the graduate school, is fulfilling a Constitutional duty, according to the Supreme Court ruling of May 17, 1954. The college, too, is following a trend, not only in North Carolina but throughout the South, of accepting Negroes in graduate schools.
The service of Western Carolina College is being broadened as a teacher training institution. It is reported that the Negro woman being admitted there is of exemplary character and intelligence. Her choice of WCC reflects a degree of credit to the college since she selected it as the institution in which to continue her graduate work in this field.”
Hamlin was pictured on the front page of the Herald being interviewed by Lillian Hirt, who served as WCC’s Public Relations Director. Hirt played a key role in Hamlin’s smooth transition to life in Cullowhee with a simple but shrewd move. With reporters on scene Monday as students registered for the session, Hirt told Hamlin to go ahead and wait until Tuesday to enroll. A possible media circus was thus avoided, and Hamlin’s entrance to campus proved to be uneventful.
Levern Hamlin Allen fondly recalled her time at WCC, pointing to the kindness of people of these mountains.
She did pretty well after leaving WCC; after completing her post-secondary education she earned master’s degrees from the University of Maryland and George Washington University, served two terms as a WCU Trustee and received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from WCU in 2006. Following 25 years as a speech and language pathologist in District of Columbia public schools, she has retired to Maryland.
Western Carolina’s newest dormitory, the 600-bed Levern Hamlin Allen Hall, now bears her name following ceremonies on Sept. 5.
ON THE WEB:
To learn more about the building named after Levern Hamlin Allen and for a look at the scrapbook she kept during her time at Western Carolina College in 1957, go to: