What It Was Like to Be an African-American Freshman in 1962
A tiny but historic cohort of African-American students entered Stanford on the vanguard of the civil rights movement. This is how it felt.
By Roy Johnson
In September 1962, a student named James Meredith showed up on the campus of the University of Mississippi to register for classes. Although it had been eight years since Brown v. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, Ole Miss still admitted only white students.
Meredith, a native Mississippian and an Air Force veteran, was African-American.
Segregationists blocked the entrance to the administration building and a white mob surrounded Meredith, taunting and jeering him. In the following days, President John F. Kennedy sent federal troops to the Oxford campus to quell rioting and enforce a Supreme Court ruling that upheld Meredith’s admission. On October 1, Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the school.
Across the country, on the Farm, the climate was considerably more temperate. Yet for seven African-American freshmen who entered Stanford that fall, cultural and racial attitudes presented profound, if less charged, challenges.
Although their number was minuscule relative to later years, they composed the largest group of African-American freshmen in the institution’s history. Stanford was taking its first modest steps toward diversifying an undergraduate population that was overwhelmingly white and mostly Californian. Most members of the “’62 Seven” encountered little outright hostility, and few whom we interviewed recall overtly racist incidents directed at them. Some, despite occasional feelings of isolation, found their time at Stanford to be fruitful and enjoyable. Others left Stanford alienated from the school but later renewed their connections and became strong supporters. Still others continue to shun Stanford (and declined to be interviewed for this article) because of what they endured while on the Farm.
The group’s collective experiences provide a glimpse at the travails black students faced years before the emergence of ethnic theme houses and the thriving communities of color that permeate the campus today.
By 1968, African-American freshman enrollment had increased tenfold, and black students were actively, and effectively, seeking change. Earlier that year, prompted by frustration at what they perceived to be a lack of progress on racial matters and galvanized by the recent assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., members of the Black Student Union took over the Memorial Auditorium stage during a speech by President Richard Lyman and presented a list of 10 demands, nine of which — including a determined effort to recruit more African-American faculty — the university met.
For the freshmen who arrived at the Farm 55 years ago, though, there were no such milestone moments, no organized activist movements around race issues. They were pioneers, lonely swimmers in a sea of whiteness, doing their best to coexist — and succeed — in a world that did not always want them.
Here, in their own words, are some of their stories.
was well-traveled before arriving at the Farm. As a child she lived in West Africa, where her father was deeply involved in the South African Liberation movements. Her family later moved to Chicago, where her father taught at Roosevelt University. She was politically active at Stanford, first as part of the anti-war movement on campus, and later as part of a six-month student-led strike at San Francisco State over the administration’s refusal to create an ethnic studies curriculum. After earning her undergraduate degree in anthropology, she worked as a research assistant for the East European collection at the Hoover Institution, then earned a master’s in 1973 and a doctorate in 1977 in comparative literature. Until 2004, she taught African-American studies in the English department.
‘At Roble it felt like there were 199 blonde giants and me.’
- My high school had tried to get a couple of people into Stanford the year before, but they were turned down. The belief was that Stanford had a quota on Jews. My school was 70 percent Jewish, 20 percent African-American and the rest white. A Jewish girl and I got in. Our counselor viewed it as a triumph.
- I didn’t know my black classmates at all. I don’t know where they were hanging out, and I don’t recall meeting them.
- Stanford was a very insular world, a western, California white world that seemed to be made up of valedictorians from every high school in the state. At Roble it felt like there were 199 blonde giants and me. It was culture shock.
- There were more African students on campus than African-Americans. My recourse and refuge was the Bechtel International Center. I was more comfortable with the culture there. I can think of two people I called friends who were American.
- Once a girl came up to me and said: “I’ve never talked to a Negro.” We were “Negroes” back then.
- I don’t recall any overt hostility, but for a variety of reasons I remained reclusive.
- The social scene was totally sexist. At the time, women could not move off campus unless they were 23, a graduate student or living with their family. I lasted in the dorm one quarter. I did a little dating — interracial dating, out of necessity. One man brought me back to the dorm at 10:30 p.m., which was right at curfew. He opened the door for me and stopped. But the RA saw him and yelled: NO MEN IN THE DORM AFTER 10:30! The poor kid jumped to the ceiling. I didn’t want to deal with that. I went to live with my mom in Palo Alto; she had moved out here for health reasons.
- I did find solace in what was going on with civil rights nationally. I picketed in Berkeley and at Stanford, protested housing discrimination and organized a peace caucus. We were often ridiculed; I expected that from the frat boys.
- Graduate school was my happiest time at Stanford. Students were more congenial, and there were a whole bunch of people who had come back from the Peace Corps and lived in Africa. I was still the only black; even then we were few and far between.
- When I came back to teach at Stanford, I had problems more with faculty than students. I was one of two African-Americans in the English department, but there were no Asian-Americans, no people from the Third World and only three women in a department of 40. My area was Caribbean literature. One male colleague, who was supposed to vote on my entry into the department, walked up to me and said: “Do they read in the Caribbean?” I just didn’t know what to say.
arrived at Stanford excited about getting away from Cleveland but left with mixed feelings about his student experience. After brief stints in North Carolina and New York after graduation, Rose returned to the Bay Area, attended law school at UC-Berkeley and met his best friend, desk mate and future wife, Pat. He tried working for a big law firm, but the altruist in him won out. “We were always on the wrong side of cases,” he says. Eventually, he joined the Legal Aid Society of Alameda County “doing civil law for poor people, which was much more in tune with my political philosophies and background.”
‘My high school was fairly well-to-do, but the level of money around Stanford . . . people had gotten Corvettes for high school graduation presents.’
- I wanted to get away from Cleveland. Everybody was pushing me real hard to go to Harvard. I thought it was too close to Cleveland. I’d never heard of Stanford until the 11th grade.
- In those days, people didn’t visit schools. My parents were schoolteachers, so they didn’t have money to send me to California. I got off the plane and some frat had arranged to give rides from SFO to campus. It was my first time in California.
- I was sort of disappointed there weren’t more blacks at Stanford. I’m a little sorry I didn’t do my undergraduate work someplace else, like UCLA, which was in a major city. Stanford was isolated from the communities around campus. You couldn’t get to them without a car, and if you did have a car, where were you — Palo Alto? I didn’t make any close friends at Stanford.
- Otherwise, I was kind of oblivious to the culture. At Shaker Heights High School in suburban Cleveland, we had only 30 blacks out of 1,600. The fact that I wasn’t around a whole lot of other black people was not a big problem for me.
- I was used to people having a whole lot of money around me. My high school was fairly well-to-do, but the level of money around Stanford . . . people had gotten Corvettes for high school graduation presents.
- Acid hit campus when I was a sophomore. In those days it wasn’t even illegal. Acid was supposed to be a mind expander, and many, many members of the class tried it. I did a lot — for about the next 10 years.
- By the time we were seniors, the Vietnam War had really polarized the campus. My father had served in World War II and Korea and was of the idea “my country, right or wrong.” One of my residence mates was friends with [anti-war activist] David Harris. I started listening to some of the protests and going to the campus bookstore, where all the lefties were. My thoughts began to shift to the left.
almost didn’t come to Stanford, almost didn’t apply. He excelled in the classroom and in sports at Northeast High School in Oklahoma City, which had been all-white prior to the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation ruling in Brown. “I said naively that I’d only look at Stanford, Harvard and MIT,” he says. But his school’s white dean of students refused to complete his portion of the application and questioned why Hall would want to attend those three schools. “He said, ‘Why don’t you go to Oklahoma State like everyone else?’” Hall recalls. Hall ultimately was admitted to all three universities. At Stanford, Hall was senior class president and later the first African-American (and, at 26, the youngest) member of the Board of Trustees. After joining Hewlett-Packard, where he was mentored by founders William Hewlett and David Packard, both ’34, Engr. ’39, Hall went on to have an extremely successful career on Wall Street. He served as treasurer at IBM and Texaco before retiring in 2004 as CEO of Utendahl Capital Management. In June, the first Ira D. Hall Under 30 Service Award was presented at the annual Academic and Community Awards ceremony at Stanford’s Black Community Services Center. The recipient was Michael Tubbs, ’12, MA ’12, the mayor of Stockton, Calif.
‘I did not go to Stanford for love. I was not surprised that I did not find a welcoming environment ready to love me.’
- I picked Stanford because it had a color brochure with palm trees. I couldn’t afford a campus visit, so when it was time to go, I got on a bus and headed to campus.
- I did not go to Stanford for love. I did not go for the social life. I was not surprised that I did not find a welcoming environment ready to love me. I came to learn about the kind of environment I would probably go into as a professional. I didn’t expect it to be welcoming, either. I wanted to be an executive, so I knew I would be in charge of people not like me. I had to get to know about them, and I expected them to learn about me.
- If I saw another black person, we’d stop and have a holiday.
- My parents were strong supporters of civil rights. I’d never met a black engineer but went there with the idea of majoring in electrical engineering. Yet I did not have a great affinity for the faculty or students in electrical engineering. After I declared that as my major, the first question my adviser asked was “Why are you here?” It was said with a combination of “Why are you at Stanford? Why are you in electrical engineering? And why are you in my office?” I said to myself: To hell with you.
- There was a national awakening among a certain class of people who recognized, “Hey, there are problems going on.” People started asking me about the issues. We shared problems and solutions. I told them they needed to adopt different attitudes and behavior once they went home. I was teaching, frequently over beer.
- I loved music, so I had a weekend life in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. I’d go into a jazz club and be fine with the world. By surprise, I discovered Sly & the Family Stone played once a week at a little beer hall in Palo Alto. They used it as a rehearsal. I was there every Tuesday night.
- Things may have happened the same for me at other places, but they happened at Stanford. It was very monumental in my life: getting affirmation from world-class professors who were knowledgeable coaches. They were not just looking at my grades; they were looking at my competency and mastery.
- Eventually, I became comfortable academically and socially and developed my own leadership style. That was my curriculum: how to work with high-powered people who were going places. I may have learned that in the classroom, or in scuba diving. Or both.
Alexander Lewis Jr.
was a military brat who lived in Okinawa, North Carolina and Germany before his parents settled in Hawaii. Like many of his peers, he didn’t know much about Stanford before applying. He attended with the help of scholarships earned through participating in ROTC for three years during high school and at Stanford. After graduation, he earned an MBA from Harvard and worked as a stockbroker for Kidder Peabody in New York before serving two years in the Army, stationed at Fort Ord, Calif. Lewis returned to Hawaii and entered the field of special education, where he continues to work as a resource teacher.
‘The biggest shock was academics. . . . I got my first D and said, “What the hell is happening?”’
- Stanford was extremely enjoyable. I couldn’t have picked a better experience — both academically and in extracurricular areas. I loved it.
- I didn’t feel isolated, and it wasn’t much of a culture shock for me. I attribute that to being an Army brat, moving from one year to the next and living in so many places.
- The biggest shock was academics. I did pretty well in high school, but [at Stanford] there were no easy A’s anymore. I got my first D and said, “What the hell is happening?” I did so-so the first couple of years, before finally making the Dean’s List.
- I lived in Stern my freshman year. Everybody was friendly. I was also a hasher working in dining halls to make money and a student associate at Roble. I was a headliner at Gaieties, played intramural sports, and was a manager for the basketball and football teams.
- The Vietnam War was rising as a thing on campus and throughout the country, but I didn’t get too politically involved, maybe because both my parents were military.
- I joined a frat [Phi Sigma Kappa] my sophomore year, and that became my primary social hub. I was the first African-American to join but didn’t know it. Apparently, there were some problems with the national over my admission — which I also did not know. The frat said it would secede from national if they caused any difficulties. National backed down.
- As much as I loved and enjoyed the place, I haven’t maintained the kind of relationship with Stanford I probably should have. I haven’t been to a single reunion.
grew up in Pasadena and went to the same junior high school that Jackie Robinson had attended. That’s where a counselor told him that if he kept his grades up he could go “someplace like Stanford.” At John Muir High, he became a starting offensive guard on the most dominating football team in Southern California during his senior season. Seven members of the team got into Stanford. “I was the only one who wasn’t recruited,” Clay recalls. Why became obvious, he says, after a classmate showed him a copy of a local newspaper that quoted “Cactus” Jack Curtice, Stanford’s head coach from 1958 to 1962. “He was asked why there weren’t any Negroes on his team,” Clay says. “He said, ‘Nobody can get in.’ Since I was already in, it was like a wake-up call to me. I decided to be a walk-on.” He became the third African-American player in the history of Stanford’s football program. After Stanford, Clay obtained a degree in social work at UCLA and a law degree at UC-Berkeley. He worked in legal aid and as general counsel for the California Housing Finance Agency. Like most of his African-American classmates, Clay left the Farm with a feeling of ambivalence, at best, about the university. But as Stanford became a more welcoming place for students of all races, Clay’s attitude about the school changed as well. He has become one of Stanford’s most prominent and active alums, serving on numerous committees before being elected to the Board of Trustees in 1990. He was a founding member of the Black Alumni Association and is a member of the Multicultural Hall of Fame. In 2004, Clay was recognized with the Gold Spike Award, Stanford’s highest accolade for volunteer leadership.
‘Several weeks would go by when I didn’t see a black person on campus. . . . Those kinds of things were very isolating.’
- During my freshman year in Otero, I had a roommate from Oregon who said he “thought” he’d seen two black people from a distance. This was before there were many blacks on television. We got along well, and I learned something from him, learned something about people — that everybody has prejudices of some sort. He didn’t understand why people have a negative feeling about black people; it made no sense to him. Now, he had prejudice against loggers; he thought they were inherently dumb and had no respect for them. I was not prepared for that.
- I heard the word “nigger” a few times, but it wasn’t directed toward me or anybody.
- I didn’t expect a lot of black people to be at Stanford, but I expected a few. When I went home, I told my mother everyone was white; even the ditch diggers were white. Several weeks would go by when I didn’t see a black person on campus. This was before there were any black faculty. James Gibbs was the first, but he didn’t come until ’66, my senior year. Those kinds of things were very isolating.
- Things were different my sophomore year, when Dale [Rubin, ’66, a transfer student] and [freshman] John Guillory moved into Fremont in Stern [now Twain]. I was in Larkin, so I got to know them and moved into Fremont in fall of ’64. There were maybe six or seven blacks all in the same dorm. It was like our own fraternity.
- The new football players were all recruited by Bill Walsh, an assistant under John Ralston, the new head coach. At Berkeley, they were putting all the black players at wide receiver so they didn’t have to play them all. Walsh was different; he let us play anywhere on offense.
- Ralston still tried that, though. On the first day of practice my junior season, we all went out for different positions on offense; the next day we were all on defense. His excuse? He said, “I put my best players on defense.” That could have been true, but we’d had only one day of practice, so he had no idea who was really good. I thought he was racist, and he clearly didn’t like me.
- I’m not in the yearbook because I didn’t care enough to get my picture taken. I just wanted to get out.
- [Several years after graduating] I was approached by Ira [Hall] about becoming part of the Alumni Association, and that was a positive experience. I also began attending Stanford Sierra Camp when my daughter was 3, in the late ’70s. We went every year until she graduated from high school. Through those experiences, I got to know some new people and started to have a different feeling about Stanford. •
Roy Johnson, ’78, is a columnist at the Alabama Media Group/AL.com and founder of Fit Live Win, LLC, an employee-wellness enterprise.
Photography: Toni Gauthier for Sandra Drake, Paul Rose and Roger Clay; Brian Smith for Ira Hall; PF Bentley for Alexander Lewis Jr.