In September of 1956, JoAnne Smart and Bettye Tillman stepped foot on the campus of Woman’s College, now UNCG, as the institution’s first African American students.
Their four years on campus were marked by courage, strength of character and a commitment to pursuing excellence in education, despite the challenges they faced.
Now more than 60 years later, in celebration of Black History Month, UNCG is proud to share the story of JoAnne Smart Drane ’60 and remember the life of the late Bettye Ann Tillman ’60.
The following are highlights from a recent interview with Drane at her home in Raleigh.
Tell us about your time at Woman’s College. What were some of your favorite moments, and what challenges did you face?
I was the first person in my family to ever go to college. I had never attended school with any white people, and I had not had any white teachers. But I always knew that I wanted to go to college, and I had the hope that things would go smoothly.
I think that our feelings, at least initially, bordered on fear of the unknown. Bettye and I weren’t sure how we would be received and what the attitudes of the students would be. In many cases, students were receiving and accepting. On the other hand, there were students who were very hostile in their interactions. I think one of the things that was so helpful to the African American students who were at Woman’s College at the time was the fact that the black community in Greensboro was so supportive and encouraging.
I also think of the opportunities that I would not have had otherwise. The university brought in a lot of cultural activities – theater and music and speakers that were very, very important in the overall development of a student.
Where did life take you after you graduated in 1960?
I started my professional career as a guidance counselor in a junior high school in Rocky Mount. I was there for a couple years before I returned to Raleigh, which is where I’m originally from, and accepted the position of psychometrist in the central office of Raleigh City Schools. In that role, I was responsible for administering the standardized testing program.
From that, I moved on to being the director of programs for exceptional children. That was a very exciting and very challenging period of my career. I left that role after several years to work in the state department of education. I stayed there until being offered a position to come back to work with the newly merged Raleigh and Wake County schools, and I accepted a position as the director of federal programs, which led to my becoming the assistant to the superintendent.
I then worked again in state government as a consultant in teacher education, which is the position I retired from. So my career has spanned a lot of different roles in the education sphere, but roles that allowed me to use a lot of the learnings and skills that I acquired as a student from Woman’s College and later from my graduate work.
You’ve stayed involved with the university in a variety of ways, including serving on the Board of Trustees. Why have you felt compelled to stay connected to UNCG?
My first connection after graduation was some 20 years later, when I received an invitation from the Neo-Black Society to come and speak to a group of alumni who were interested in my experiences at Woman’s College.
Until that time, I really had no desire to go back. But once I got back and saw that there was an interest – and then also saw how the university had grown in its acceptance and the involvement of African American students and faculty – it opened my eyes to the kinds of things that had developed in that period of time since I had left.
It was from that experience that I began to become more interested and more involved. I accepted the nomination to be a representative on the alumni board, and from that it just seemed to grow.
How does it feel to know that you were a trailblazer for the rich diversity we see on campus now?
It’s amazing to see the diversity that the campus exemplifies today compared to when we were there some 60 years ago. It’s heartwarming and humbling to think that some small part of what’s happened today can be traced back to two young black women who stepped on that campus in 1956.
What’s your vision for UNCG? Where do you want to see the university in five years?
Woman’s College had the reputation of being a school with strong academics and good, solid preparation for professionals and for life in general. I think that reputation has continued.
I want UNCG to be known as the very best of all of the constituent schools in the university system, and I think it will be. I’m excited about the new chancellor and the different areas that the university is getting recognition for.
The excellence of the university is something that needs to be continued and supported – not only by the state government that provides the finances, but also by alumni. That support is very important to continue the tradition of excellence.
JoAnne Smart Drane’s story was highlighted in a full-page ad that appeared in the Greensboro News & Record, Raleigh News & Observer and Charlotte Observer on Sunday, Feb. 26. View the ad (PDF version) here.
Interview by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications