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Campus News

Invitation to Integrate Made History at Tiny Junior College: Alma Shippy, first Black Student at Warren Wilson

by Margaret Lillard, Associated Press 2007

SWANNANOA, N.C.–There is no monument to Alma Shippy.

No plaque describes how, in 1952, the shy teenager packed a bag of clothes, caught a ride in a friend’s pickup truck and walked into history on the campus of Warren Wilson Junior College.

It’s an obscure vignette in civil rights history. Shippy not only was Warren Wilson’s first black student, but one of the few to attend any segregated college or junior college by invitation, and not by court order and armed escort.

“There were no dogs, no guns. He didn’t have to be shot at. There was nobody that was beaten up, nobody died because he came here,” says Rodney Lytle, a 1974 Warren Wilson graduate and now the school’s multicultural adviser. “And that, that story, that is beautiful!”

And it didn’t happen by chance.

Shippy’s presence was the culmination of a decade of work by leaders of Warren H. Wilson Vocational Junior College and Associated Schools, created in 1942 from the merger and expansion of two high schools run by the Presbyterian Church.

Arthur Bannerman, born in Africa to Presbyterian missionaries, was named the school’s new president. With new Dean Henry Jensen, he opened the school’s doors to a variety of outsiders, starting with two Japanese-American girls from an internment camp in Arizona.

“They were missionaries”, says Warren Wilson graduate Marvin Lail, “with a philosophy of not just telling you but showing you.”

Bannerman began writing to church-connected schools for blacks, seeking a student who might want to come to Warren Wilson. It wasn’t until the spring of 1952 that the men learned of Alma Shippy, a 17-year-old who had befriended some Warren Wilson students in local churches where he helped teach Sunday school and Bible classes.

Alma Shippy with friends Billy Edd Wheeler and Rodney Lytle

Lail, then 16 years old, was deputized to walk across the Swannanoa Valley to Buckeye Cove where Shippy lived with his grandmother. He invited Shippy to speak at the campus evening prayer service.

Jensen watched Shippy’s brief address, and afterward joined Lail in asking whether he might like to attend Warren Wilson. Then, as now, students help with their expenses by working at the school. Shippy, who had no money for college, said yes.

There was a hurdle: The college had one dormitory for male students and Shippy would have to live there. Jensen called a meeting of the 55 Sunderland Hall residents.

He “was a very smart man and was a good speaker and (said), ‘We’re going to integrate the college and we want it to be sooner rather than later, because it’s coming down the road and everything will be integrated,” Lail recalled.

The vote was 54-1 to accept Shippy. He began classes at Warren Wilson Junior College in the fall of 1952.

After the first few days, his presence drew little attention on campus that already housed students from China, Cuba, Europe and South America, Wheeler said.

The college tried to downplay Shippy’s presence. Bannerman was friends with the editor of the Asheville newspaper and asked him to keep it quiet.

In early December, his friends gathered once more, crowding into the college chapel for a memorial service, a few days after Shippy’s death at 72. They are determined that it will not be the last time the school marks his memory.

One former classmate has proposed a scholarship in Shippy’s name. Shippy’s family and other college officials are discussing a permanent memorial, a marker or perhaps a tree outside Sunderland Hall, for Shippy and all those who welcomed him into their lives not because of a court order, but as a matter of fairness and faith.

“This group of people at Warren Wilson College was open-minded and willing to accept Alma not as a colored guy, like they called us then,” Michael Shippy said. “They accepted him as a man.”

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