Fifty years ago, James McCorkle stepped onto the campus of Guilford College and forever changed the course of the school’s history.
Last week, the Winston-Salem native and retired educator returned to his alma mater to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his enrollment, which racially integrated the school.
The Sept. 25 event, held outdoors on the quad, served as the kick off for a year’s slate of activities dedicated to reflect upon the diversity journey of Guilford, a small, private school founded by Quakers in 1837. McCorkle spoke at the event, which also included African drumming, spoken word performances and speeches by other notable black alumni.
McCorkle became the school’s first African American student when he arrived in August 1962, but he wasn’t the only black face on campus. That same year, Guilford welcomed two students from Kenya.
“I was treated fine. There were no problems in particular,” recalled the 68 year-old. “…I was met by a group of people, including my roommates – they sort of walked me around the campus. There was no fanfare or anything. It was a quiet entrance.”
McCorkle, an Atkins High School graduate who was a National Merit Scholar and president of the Student Council, said he never would have considered attending Guilford if it hadn’t been for the gentle nudging of an Atkins guidance counselor, who convinced him that Guilford was where he needed to be.
“My guidance counselor told me that Guilford was looking to integrate. I guess they had talked with the guidance counselor at my school, and she said that I was a perfect candidate for that,” he related. “I also had a scholarship to Morehouse. I was really sort of set on Morehouse because at the time, all of my classmates and I were geared towards historically black colleges, but they convinced me that this would be a good thing to do.”
The 50th anniversary of his enrollment and the attention that he has received as a result have caused McCorkle, who spent more than 40 years as an educator before his retirement in 2010, to reflect upon his college days once again.
“It was a unique experience. I learned a number of things. I guess I learned to be in an all-white environment on campus and in the classrooms as well,” he said. “Sometimes, it was (lonely), but I made friends and I guess the longer I was there, the better it got.”
McCorkle, who majored in chemistry and minored in education, said returning to campus after so many years was a bit of a surreal experience.
“It was enlightening because I really was not aware of all of the things that have gone on after I left,” he remarked. “…And the students know me. A lot of them have thanked me for, I guess being the first, or opening the way. It’s strange because it comes 50 years later.”
Jada Drew, Guilford’s interim director for Educational Initiatives and Community Partnerships and coordinator of the Multicultural Education Department’s Africana Community, is spearheading 50th anniversary events for the Department.
“Journeys in Blackness,” as the commemoration has been dubbed, continued with a slate of events during Homecoming and Family Weekend last weekend, including an alumni panel discussion, a black alumni mixer and the formation of a Black Alumni Advisory Council.
Journeys in Blackness draws its name from a 1970s phrase coined by a group of students who founded the first black student organization on campus, Brothers and Sisters in Blackness (BASIB). The programming is meant to commemorate past achievements with respect to diversity, to celebrate the culture and accomplishments of African Americans, and to reconcile some of the wounds of the past, by implementing meaningful race relations programs and practices, Drew said.
“I don’t think Guilford is as inclusive as we want to be – it’s a process, just like it is for any other school,” commented the Rich Square native. “We want to reconcile our race relations and continue to move forward to ensure our college is as inclusive as possible, especially with respect to African American students.”
President Kent Chabotar underscored the college’s intent to deepen its commitment to diversity in his remarks at last week’s kick off.
“We’ve come a long way, and today we’re kicking off a celebration to look backward at what we’ve accomplished, but also looking forward at what else we need to do,” he stated. “For that I thank everyone here, because you’re all going to be a part of that effort.”
Drew, a 2007 alumna of Guilford, said meeting McCorkle and hearing his story through Journeys in Blackness has made an impression on her.
“I was really humbled to meet somebody who, if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to be on campus,” she remarked. “It’s very inspiring.”
McCorkle was slated to return to campus on Wednesday, Oct. 3 for a dinner with scholars at the college’s Alumni House.
For a full slate of Journey in Blackness events, visit HYPERLINK “http://www.guilford.edu” http://www.guilford.edu.