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22 June 2006

Barbara Curry: JSUís First Black American Student?

Barbara Curry

Interviewed by Al Harris
JSU News Bureau

Mrs. Barbara Curry of Anniston said she enrolled as Jacksonville State Collegeís first black American student when she (then Barbara Minkeson) registered for classes as an education major in home economics in the fall of 1965.

As far as anyone knows, Mrs. Curry is correct, though JSU is unable to pinpoint its exact moment of desegregation because everything worked exactly as it should have: smoothly, without fanfare, protests, or media. JSUís International House Program ensured the campus was ethnically diverse long before integration became a civil rights issue.

Barbara Crook Curry was born on November 24, 1941, to Sye and Louise Crook of Ohatchee. She graduated in 1959 from Calhoun County Training School in Hobson City and attended Alabama A&M for two quarters before interrupting her studies to work in New York City.

Mrs. Curry returned to Alabama and graduated from JSU in 1969, earning a Bachelor of Science in Education with a concentration in vocational home economics. On the Monday morning following graduation, Mrs. Curry went to work for Alabama Power as a home economist. Eventually, she became a senior marketing specialist who worked with heating and cooling dealers, builders, real estate professionals, and the public in promoting electric energy through the use of heat pumps, water heaters, and appliances. On November 24, 2001, Mrs. Curry retired from Alabama Power after 32 years and five months of service.

Mrs. Curry was married to the late Henry Curry of Anniston, who was instrumental in Alabamaís civil rights movement. Mrs. Curry has two grown children: Starla, 31, of Gardendale, Ala., who recently earned a law degree; and Joseph, 44, of Anniston.

Mrs. Curry recently talked about her experiences as one of JSUís first black American students.

Q: Why did you decide to enroll at JSU?

Mrs. Curry: I will just say it was the Lordís will, because had it not been for integration taking place at the time it did I would not have been able to get an education. My brother was getting ready to go to college the same year, I had a marriage that had gone stale, and I had come back home from New York City to live with my parents, and it was a matter of needing to do something to better myself. Neither one of my parents was educated but they believed in education very much. It wasnít like I was trying to make a big impression on anybody or that I meant for JSU to be integrated; it was the fact that this is what I was going to have to do to get an education. JSU was local, I could drive every day, and my brother left his car home for me so I could have transportation. So, I went to JSU.

Q: Did you encounter any problems at JSU?

Mrs. Curry: I didnít really have any great problems. JSU had the International House and that helped ease the tension. Plus, there was so much emphasis at the time on the University of Alabama and Gov. Wallace standing in the door and these types of things that thatís where everybody was focused.

Q: You drove all the way to campus to request an application and catalog. Why did you come in person rather than call?

Mrs. Curry: I came in person to get the catalog because I was afraid that if I asked someone over the phone to mail it I wouldnít hear back from anyone. I showed up in person so nobody would have any question about what color I was. I figured, "You can give me the catalog or you can say no -- one of the two." They gave the catalog along with the application information I needed. All went smoothly. I filled out the application, mailed it back in, then I showed up for class the day I was supposed to.

Q: You mentioned that driving to campus was especially nerve-wracking. Tell me more about that.

Mrs. Curry: Driving the road to campus was a bigger deal by far than being on campus. I had more fear of the people on the outside, away from JSU -- the people I had to pass by every day going to school. They had ambushed a black man that summer just before I had started school in September. I was more fearful of the people on the outside, because of the bus-burning in Anniston, Ala. -- violence against the freedom riders, and this type of thing. I did not go the back roads at all because I was afraid of being ambushed. There were very anti-civil rights people who were doing everything they could so there would not be a mix. They had beaten up several local people who had pulled in to a gas station who did not know that they did not sell gas to black people, and if black people pulled on their lot they were beaten half to death. Fortunately, nothing ever happened; I didnít have a flat tire or a breakdown or need help. I had a guardian angel that led me through each day.

I used my brotherís car, a 1959 Chevrolet, white over blue, a straight shift. I got down low in the seat, almost looking through the steering wheel along several areas of my travel. I was only 5í5." I doubled my distance to and from campus by going the long way from Ohatchee, up U.S. Highway 431 to Alabama 21 (Pelham Rd.) to avoid troublemakers. After I got to campus every day, I could relax.

Q: What do you remember about your first day on campus?

Mrs. Curry: That morning, because of the dress code, I was wearing a green skirt, plaid blouse, and loafers. It was a beautiful sunny day. In my first class, Mrs. Grace Gates was wearing a business suite; male professors wore ties. Female students could not wear shorts, pants, jeans, flip-flops.

I walked into the classroom on one end of Bibb Graves. There were students sitting at their desks, you know how the aisles are, and the students sitting in front of me and on each side got up and left their seats. They stood beside the wall. It was like, weíre not going to sit here because thereís a black person in here. The students who stood up were doing a lot of whispering, and I was sitting there with a little fixed grin on my face because I knew I couldnít start running.

I was 23, and one of the things that had gotten me more used to being around white people was living in New York for about five years. I had interacted with white people and some of my best friends were a couple of white girls, and we shared responsibilities with each other, taking our children to the park, and we were just really good friends. But, other than that, you didnít cross the line in Alabama. Blacks stayed with blacks and whites with whites. You had mutual respect for each other, but you didnít do any associating: you didnít take the kids out together, you didnít go to the movie, and you didnít go out to dinner, these types of things. I didnít have a big fear of the whites, but it was frightening knowing that I was back here in the Deep South again. I thought about it and realized I was the only black person here except for the workers in the lunchroom.

Professor Grace Gates walked in that morning and announced to the class, "This is 201 History -- look at your receipts and make sure youíre supposed to be here." And everybody looked at their charts, and she said, "If youíre supposed to be here, I ask that you take a seat." Some of them did, and some of them left. Now, whether some left because they werenít supposed to be there, or whether they left because they didnít want to be in the class with me, Iíll never know.

It was a new experience for me and for the college as well. I had come to the conclusion that I wasnít going to act as if I was afraid -- I kept a little smile on my face. There were times, the first few weeks I was at JSU, that I would go to the Grab, the student union snack bar, and get crackers and a soda or something to drink, and some kids would walk around and spin off and make gestures, and say "whatís she doing here," and do that kind of stuff, you know, and I would be so afraid that I could not pick up my soda and drink it. I didnít want to try to pick it up and let them see my hand shaking. Iíd keep my hands under the table and walk off, leaving the soda there.

Some kids were nice -- theyíd pass by and say good morning or what have you. One of the biggest surprises that got me -- I didnít know the common name for the freshmen on campus -- was when a couple of them came over to my table, trying to be friendly, I guess, and theyíd say, "Are you a Rat?" I didnít know they called a freshman a Rat. I didnít know how to take that, and Iíd say, "No, Iím not a Rat." I transferred in as a sophomore. But I didnít know what else to come across with. The first few weeks, I was fearful. But no one did anything. There were a few of them that would walk behind me, calling out "Go Home," but this was not like a mass of people coming at you. You will always have a few in the bunch thatís going to try to distract.

Another experience I had was at the first assembly I went to in Cole Auditorium. They still had the confederate battle flag. We had assemblies once a month or so, and for some reason or another, I always ended up near where the band was. They would end up with me near the flags. When they would say things during the assembly that the kids would cheer, this person in the flag section would rake the confederate flag across my face. And I thought, this is totally ridiculous. He did it about three times. Finally, one day I looked up at him and I said, "Donít be so ferocious with the state flag." That ended it. It probably hit him that "sheís so ignorant she doesnít even know this is the confederate flag." I knew very well what it was, but I guess he thought there was no point in flagging this girl.

The teachers were nice -- I made a lot of good friends at JSU. There were a lot of students at JSU that I worked together with in groups, and we eventually graduated together. It got to where in a few weeks I didnít sit by myself any longer. Somebody Iíd know would come in and sit down and we would begin to interact. I have no animosity or hate against anyone who created any problems. They were entitled to their opinions, and basically there was a lot of ignorance. Some of them just didnít know any better.

Overall, it was a good experience. After that first semester, I rarely had an encounter or any snotty looks or anything to take place. Or else I was so involved I just didnít notice these things. By the second semester, I had made friends with people in my class and we were studying together.

My senior year, thatís when there were more black people on campus. Starting in 1966, black educators in the area and more black students began enrolling. Up until 1965, black people who wanted to get a masterís had to go to Tuskegee, Alabama State, or Alabama A&M. And it was kind of hard because if they had kids they had to get the family situated where they could go away to school. But after JSU was integrated, then around 1966 there were a lot of educators coming to JSU to work on their masterís degrees because they could commute every day and be home with their kids at night.

Q: Were your feelings influenced a bit by your personality? Would you say you were more outgoing as a student or more reserved at that time?

Mrs. Curry: I would say I was more or less an introvert to some extent at that time. The reason being, I had had a very bad marriage. I had been battered with physical and emotional abuse to the extent that my self-esteem was down to zero. I was trying to rebuild self, to go back and find my natural self.

But I did have a good spiritual connection. My parents were very religious -- my dad was a deacon of the church, and I had been brought up in church. I had finally discovered the God that my mother had always talked about. I tried to depend on Him and to put my trust in Him. "I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me." These were the things I was building on and basing my life on. And I was growing spiritually and being self-motivated, and I was doing something at that time that I knew I had to do. But not because I was wanting to say I was integrating the school. I was doing this so that I could better my life. I was there for a reason, because I was thinking about that 2 1/2-year-old child that I had who was looking to me to raise him.

We were raised poor in Ohatchee. Weíd never been hungry and had never been outdoors, but I had the love of a close-knit family. I was determined never to put my child in the bread line. I could have resorted to welfare, but that was not the type of life that I wanted. I wanted to elevate, and I saw this as my only chance because I didnít have money to go elsewhere. I couldnít pay the board and tuition.

I really think that because I was there for that reason -- I was humble and thankful that I got another chance. People reached out and helped me. From the beginning, people were basically nice.

Q: Did you have many black friends on campus before graduating? Were you one of the first black graduates?

Mrs. Curry: The whole time I was at JSU I never had a class with another black person. I guess it was because of the time of day we were taking the class and the majors we had. I was casually acquainted with other blacks, but there were not a lot of us. I did not graduate first -- someone with more hours transferred in.

Q: What was one of your best moments at JSU?

Mrs. Curry: My best memory was when I walked into Dr. Theron Montgomeryís office, academic dean at that time, back when I was doing student teaching. I had to leave campus and couldnít work my campus job. I had worked on the work-study program and that $75 a month was what kept me in school. I earned $75 per month for 15 hours a week. That semester, I couldnít work because I had to do student teaching and was going to be off campus all day. So, I went to Dr. Montgomeryís office -- it was my last semester in college -- and I said, "Dr. Montgomery, I donít know what Iím going to do. I donít have any money, but Iím too far along and I donít want to quit." I told him somebody could loan me the money or not but that I wasnít going to drop out and would be here, money or no money. He said, "Barbara, thatís not a problem. Why havenít you been to see me earlier?" Well, I was working -- not trying to get loans. I told him, "Whoever will loan me the money, I will pay it back when I go to work." He picked up the phone and called the financial aid advisor and said "See if you can fix her up with a loan and a grant." So I went to the financial aid office and they gave me a $700 loan and they matched it with a $700 grant. To me that was one of the greatest moments -- I was getting $1,400 to attend school! I could afford to buy materials to do student teaching! I could buy gas to get to school! I said thank God for another blessing. At that time, I didnít know anything about grants -- the fact they gave me $700 was amazing. That was one of the greatest moments -- I felt like I was floating. And thatís where it always comes back to the saying, "Ask and it shall be given. Seek and ye shall find." And if youíre asking sincerely and for a purpose, itís going to be there.

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