Fifty years ago this fall, Freida Rogers Byrd and Margaret Jones Swindler became the first Black students to enroll at Converse College. In celebration of this milestone, Converse College is reflecting on our heritage and exploring the work still ahead of us with a year-long series, Celebrating Courage & Charting the Future: Commemorating 50 Years of Black Women at Converse.
The series began last February with a panel of distinguished alumnae sharing their experiences. It continues through the 2018-2019 year with feature stories highlighting individual alumnae. On September 21, we will commemorate the anniversary during Opening Convocation, lunch and an afternoon of special topic discussions (read more about the day and plan to join us). The series continues with Dance Converse performance inspired by the milestone in November. Finally, in the spring of 2019, the series will culminate with an exhibition highlighting Converse’s history of African American students developed by students of Dr. Angela Elder as part of a class research project.
A Look Back: Panel Discussion with Distinguished Alumnae
Last February, nearly 100 Black alumnae returned home to Converse for an afternoon of fellowship over lunch, a panel discussion with distinguished alumnae, and a reception hosted by Converse students. Seven Black alumnae and Converse’s first Black faculty member gathered with President Krista Newkirk in front of a packed house in Montgomery Student Center. They discussed their Converse experiences, creating a culture that embraces diversity, how they overcome hurdles in their professional lives, the impact of mentors, and how we can strengthen the network between alumnae and students. Following are highlights from the conversation.
- Joy Danielle Stoney ’00, Attorney and Owner, Stoney Law Firm LLC
- Stinson Woodward Ferguson ’07, Associate Attorney with Southern Environmental Law Center and Director of Organizational Development for J.W. Woodward Funeral Home Inc.
- The Honorable Deadra L. Jefferson ’85, Circuit Judge, South Carolina 9th Judicial Circuit
- Phyllis Perrin Harris ’82, Senior Vice President and General Counsel Legal Operations, Walmart Stores Inc.
- Dr. Kay E. Woodward, President, J.W. Woodward Funeral Home Inc., Converse’s first Black faculty member
- Candy Moore ’93, Senior Vice President, Community Development Manager Southeast Region, Wells Fargo
- Dawn Davis Deck ’99, Director of Planned Giving, ETV Endowment of SC Inc.
- Dr. Jayne Stewart Reuben ’85, Associate Professor, Texas A&M University, College of Dentistry
A Tribute to Our Trailblazers…
“We would not be telling this story today were it not for the courage of our first two students, Freida Rogers Byrd and Margaret Jones Swindler, to come forward and share their stories. They blazed a trail at Converse that at times, I’m sure, was not easy. Their stories are part of a long history of Converse and a variety of perspectives and experiences by our Black and minority students.” – President Krista Newkirk
On Choosing Converse…
“We set out one Saturday to visit several schools. When I got to campus, I stood on back campus and looked at my Daddy and said ‘This is where I belong. We don’t need to visit anywhere else.’ And he looked at me like, ‘My child with no life experience has visited ONE college…,’ but I said ‘I know this, trust me. I feel it – this is where I belong.’ I think a lot of people had this experience.” – Deadra Jefferson
“I attended an African American high school in Atlanta. I did not go to school with Caucasians the entire time I attended school, from kindergarten until 12th grade, so when I arrived at Converse this was like a different universe for me, to be quite candid. Talk about transforming my mind and making me think differently — one of the things I learned at Converse is to be fearless and to be confident. I felt like I could compete with anyone, and I did compete with anyone.” – Phyllis Harris
Mentorship Experiences and Advice…
“I was Converse’s first Black faculty member…The students who were here in the early and mid ’70s were exceptional students. It was a two-way mentorship. I felt I served as a mentor to students – not only Black students but all students – and I feel students helped me in my growth process. It was a very exciting time.” – Kay Woodward
“I created a Board of Advisors. This is a group of individuals I trust and love…who know my character…It took me years to assemble my personal board of advisors, and they help me when I make life decisions about my career or something personal. I think having a mentor and mentee relationship is so important.” – Candy Moore
“Eleanor Roosevelt said ‘Learn from the mistakes of others. You can never live long enough to make them all yourself.’ It is essential to have a mentor. Someone who has already traveled your road and made the mistakes. As children of the ’60s, our mothers taught us that you become better from a thing, not bitter…Even though you experience hard things you know you come out of it for the better. We all need a confessor who hears without judgment who can encourage us to know that we will overcome the rough patches of the journey. Nothing in life worth having is ever going to be easy.” – Deadra Jefferson
Pivotal Moments When Barriers Were Broken…
“I started in 1996 and that was the year that we had 33 black female students. It was the largest in the College’s history…but by the end of that first year, 15 were gone…One of my good friends was from the inner city of Detroit and that was a culture shock to come to Spartanburg, SC…There were some racial tensions that occurred during that time, and I think now we’re a lot more culturally sensitive.” – Joy Stoney
“In the 1980s we were still seeing some of the last public elements of segregation. I remember one of the students…came to us and said ‘I’m getting married and I want you to come to my wedding, but you can’t come to the reception because it is at a whites only country club…I remember us looking at one another and telling her…’We just don’t feel comfortable with that.’” – Jayne Reuben
“In 1995, when I came to Converse it was at the time when the first female was trying to be accepted into The Citadel…In response to this challenging time, Converse began the South Carolina Institute of Leadership for Women (SCIL); a military leadership program for women. (The issue) wasn’t about race but it was about women and the rights of women…That stood out to me during my years here.” – Dawn Deck
“To me the biggest breakdown of the racial barrier was when we came back to school in 1980 and… there were 21-22 black women in the incoming class, that’s when I felt like things had really changed… In reflection, and I know the College has changed significantly in this regard, in many respects perhaps the infrastructure was not in place because we lost quite a few of those women… If I could go back in time, there were women that I wish we had helped a bit more.” – Phyllis Harris
Creating Unity in Our Communities…
“Converse was a wonderfully secure environment in which to grow and to become. People always ask me what it’s like to be a black judge and I say maybe the better question is what is it like being a female judge, because being a woman always matters, no matter what environment you are in. As women, we have to remember the importance of complimenting one another, supporting one another, how to push one another – we should always know the importance of standing on one another’s shoulders.” – Deadra Jefferson
“I pledged the citywide chapter of Delta Sigma Theta at Converse with women from Wofford and Limestone and USC Spartanburg. Of course, we don’t have these citywide chapters anymore, but at the end of the day it was about how to have connectivity as a family, and for me personally it meant a lot to have that experience. Everything is about culture and about feeling accepted.” – Phyllis Harris
“We shouldn’t campaign so much on social media about our grievances. Instead, go to individuals and have a conversation to confront issues head on. We must intentionally reach beyond what we know to be comfortable and learn something different about others who don’t look like us.” – Dawn Deck