Sunday, March 4, 2012

An obvious slow news day in Knoxville

Retired UT professor Harold Black recalls civil-rights 'adventure' at U. of Georgia

* By John Shearer
* Knoxville News Sentinel
* Posted February 20, 2012 at 4 a.m.

There were the curious looks, the cold shoulders, repeated vandalisms.

But there also were close interracial friendships and a "God moment."

Recently retired University of Tennessee finance professor Harold Black was the first black male freshman to enroll at the University of Georgia in 1962.

He had somewhat of an unusual experience, even among civil-rights pioneers, in that he enjoyed the vast majority of his time as a student, despite being harassed plenty in that era when the Deep South was first undergoing social change.

"I had a wonderful time at Georgia," Black said. "I couldn't have asked for a better experience. I had a wonderful and fulfilling social life. I absolutely loved the whole classroom experience."

Born in Macon, he attended Booker T. Washington High in Atlanta and decided to apply to Georgia, even though a good education was also available at such all-black schools as nearby Morehouse College.

The reason was that he wanted to be a participant, and not just a supporter, in the civil-rights movement.

"I was caught up in the civil-rights thing," Black said. "I had participated and knew a lot of the participants. I knew I would be doing the civil-rights movement a disservice if I picked an all-black school."

Despite the hurdles required at that time for a black student, he was admitted.

When he and his parents drove to Athens, Ga., that September to check in at the still-standing Reed Hall next to the north end of Sanford Stadium, the lobby full of other students and families parted like the Red Sea in the Bible, Black remembered, as people looked curiously at them.

Because of that and the fact that he was assigned a single room as the only black male in the dorm, his mother encouraged him not to go to school there.

He wanted to stay, however, and that night he experienced what he called a "God moment."

He went to a beginning-of-the-year meeting in a nearby auditorium and sat down near the front.

Numerous other students around him immediately rose and sat elsewhere. But five male white students in front of him remained. One turned around and began conversing with him, and they soon learned they were all slightly scared freshmen from the Atlanta area.

Suddenly, the similarity in experiences became more important than the difference in race.

"Those guys got up and all sat next to me," Black recalled, tears almost welling in his eyes 50 years later. "It was like I was instructed to go and sit there. From that first day, I had friends at the University of Georgia, and they remained close friends."

The students were Presbyterian, and they invited him to come to the campus' Westminster Center. As a result, it became a haven and center of social activity for him throughout college, he said.

Georgia had enrolled its first two black students — upperclassmen Hamilton Holmes and longtime Public Broadcasting System correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault — in January 1961, and only seven blacks were attending when Black enrolled.

Because no black cultural center existed in those days and they all lived in different places, they actually had little contact with one another, Black said, despite the common challenges and experiences.

For Black — a Dean's List student at Georgia who has gone on to a career as a lecturer and writer on financial institutions and the monetary system — the harassments were plenty.

They included having students not sit by him in class, getting the window of his dorm room broken almost every day of fall quarter of his freshman year, and having plumbing damage done to his hall bathroom.

Rather than get frustrated and quit, Black often came up with creative ways of dealing with a problem.

For example, after the situation with his large bathroom — which the other students on the floor refused to use — he went and used every shower and commode in the other hall bathroom, telling the students he would do that every day until they stopped bothering his bathroom.

"To me, it was an adventure," he said. "To me, it was fun. Why should I be bitter? For this period of time, I had the right disposition."

By the time of his senior year at Georgia in 1965, Black had continued to adapt socially and decided to go with some white friends up to Ann Arbor, Mich., to watch Georgia play Michigan in football, despite his mother's warning against it.

When they arrived in Ann Arbor, they stopped to eat at a restaurant. Black remembered that they marveled at being able to eat together, which they could not do at an off-campus restaurant in the still-segregated South.

"We just sat there and grinned at each other," Black said.

When he returned to Athens, he did not tell his parents where he had been that weekend. But his mother told him that she had seen him on TV. Either because he was a black student supporting the Bulldogs or simply because he and his friends were carrying a Georgia sign, he ended up getting a lot of TV exposure in the stands, he said.

Georgia had won that game in an upset to help give young coach Vince Dooley — father of current University of Tennessee coach Derek Dooley — a boost early in his career.

Since then, some have said Black's actions at Georgia greatly helped propel the early integration effort there in a positive direction as well.

In fact, noted journalist Calvin Trillin, who wrote a book about the early Georgia integration experience, called Black a hero in a signed copy of an updated reprint he gave him during a recent Georgia integration anniversary celebration.

"No one had ever used that term, and I had never called myself a hero," said Black. "I still don't. I was just a kid who went to college."

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