By: Ben Anderson
Alma Shippy, the Swannanoa native who in 1952 became one of the first students to break the color barrier at an undergraduate institution in the Old Confederacy, died Dec. 1, 2006, in Asheville. He was 72.
Shippy enrolled at historically white Warren Wilson Vocational Junior College two years before Brown v. Board of Education, and several years before most colleges and universities in the South integrated. At the urging of Marvin Lail ’53 and other students, and with support from President Arthur Bannerman and Dean Henry Jensen, Sunderland Hall dorm residents voted 54-1 to accept Shippy as a fellow student. In recalling the historic vote, former Shippy classmates such as Lail and Billy Edd Wheeler ’53 said they and other students voted overwhelmingly to accept him as a fellow student out of a simple sense of fairness.
Shippy, a graduate of Asheville’s Stephens-Lee High School who grew up in Buckeye Cove near the Warren Wilson campus, blazed a trail for other black students at the college. Among them was Georgia Powell, who in 1955 became the first African American to graduate from Warren Wilson. His watershed enrollment, done without fanfare, also helped pave the way for many other black students at historically white colleges and universities across the South.
"Alma was not only a friend to me and many people, but an ambassador throughout the Swannanoa Valley and beyond," said Rodney Lytle ’73, Warren Wilson multicultural advisor.
In 2002, the Warren Wilson College Board of Trustees passed a proclamation recognizing the 50th anniversary of Shippy’s enrollment. At the emotional ceremony with the board, Shippy said, "We had a wonderful closeness with the staff here. I still feel this is my family, right here." The above photo, taken after the ceremony, shows Shippy flanked by longtime friends Wheeler and Lytle.
A memorial service, officiated by the Rev. James Roberts of Fairmount Missionary Baptist Church, was held Dec. 7. at Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church and College Chapel. You can read Alma Shippy’s obituary in the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer by clicking here.