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Making college home by Rufus Coleman
Summer 2004      

other features

History of integration

Opening doors

Transforming history

Making college home

Greek life

A team united

Pride and tradition

Remembering the early days


In the mid 1950s, the first African American students arriving at North Texas could earn an education, but they couldn't live on campus.

UNT began a slow process of desegregating its dorms a handful of female African American students at a time in 1957 — making room for African American males the next decade.

But in the beginning, it was Denton's African American community that housed those first groups of black students.

Somewhere to stay

"When the university started admitting black students, word just got around through the neighborhood that they would need somewhere to stay," says Norvell Reed, a southeast Denton resident who opened her home to students. "Those of us with extra space would rent our rooms out for just a few dollars each month."

Many of those people have passed away, but they live on in the memories of the students who shared their homes.

Loita Alexander Gibson, a North Texas physical education major from 1957 to 1960, lived on Lakey Street — first with Hazel Young, then with Eula Gray. Both were former teachers at Denton's Fred Moore High School.

"Mrs. Gray was a big inspiration for us," Gibson says. "She was our mother hen. She looked after us. She knew about the city, how far to go and where not to go."

One of Gibson's brightest memories is of the day Young opened her kitchen to a group of white students.

"We were friends and they were really interested in where we were living, what it was like," she says. "So, one day Mrs. Young opened her kitchen, and we all cooked together on her big old stove and ate together and had a good time."

Way off campus

Like Gibson, other African American students coming to North Texas at that time learned to adapt to their off-campus experience, even when it wasn't expected.

  James Gray

James Gray ('66, '67 M.A.), now chief of ophthalmology at Baylor University Medical Center, lived in this garage apartment — a long walk from campus — in the '60s.

James Gray ('66, '67 M.A.) says his first campus memories weren't of the campus at all.

"I thought I was going to be taken to the campus to have a regular university-type life, but my parents drove me to the other side of town," he says.

Gray lived with two other students in a small apartment over the single-car garage of an African American family. Like many of the students living in the southeast Denton area — nicknamed "Shack Town" — he walked several miles to and from campus every day.

"The winters in Denton were harsh at that time," he says. "I remember walking through snow and sleet up to my ankles — and the roads weren't paved so you did the best you could — and you'd have ice in your mustache and in your hair, and when you got there, you'd try to warm up your hands enough to take notes."

He also remembers Henry Biggerstaff, a UNT psychology professor who for two winters gave him a ride to campus.

"He didn't have to do that," Gray says. "Many people would drive by us as we walked every day, and no one ever offered us a ride."

Norvell Reed
Norvell Reed opened her home to African American students who could not live in the dorms.

For the most part, the students were accepted into the African American community, attending churches, using the barbershops and going to functions at the community recreation center.

Reed, who had six children, says the students who lived with her family would join them on picnics and other outings. But mostly, she says, they focused on studying.

"They were all really good about going in every day, even though they had to walk all that way, and when they'd come home they'd mainly just do their studies," she says. "Sometimes they'd eat with us or they'd cook something for themselves."

Church support

Fifty years later, nothing has changed about the openness of Denton's African American community to the university's students, says the Rev. James Kelly ('73), associate pastor of Morse Street Baptist Church and a member of the Southeast Denton Ministerial Alliance.

Today's college ministries program at Morse Street Baptist Church is vibrant. The choir is overflowing with North Texas students and many of the church's members participate in its adopt-a-student program. Families in the program give African American students at North Texas a second home for food, support and nurturing.

Kelly and his wife adopted two students this year, which means they are available to listen and to guide. The students come over for meals or simply call to talk.

"We want to keep them focused on what their journey at college is all about," Kelly says. "We try to give them support so they can get out and feel good about themselves, feel good about graduating."

It's a feeling Kelly knows well. As a student at North Texas in the early '70s, he was president of Kappa Alpha Psi and worked for the student activities office. All students could live on campus then, but he chose to live in his southeast Denton neighborhood with his aunt and uncle and attended Mount Calvary church.

"I wanted that spiritual connection and that community connection," he says.

But more than anything, he liked having the option to choose.



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