How a Gentlemen’s Agreement Broke Down Racial Barriers at Wilmington College
By Asia Butler
In America, Black History Month is an annual, month-long celebration of the achievements of Black or African Americans and the crucial role they played in U.S. history. February was officially designated as the celebratory month for Black History since 1976. One of the most predominate impacts that African Americans have had on United States is through the desegregation of schools.
The landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. This case ended the legal practice of segregation in the U.S. education system. Integration not only presented more opportunities for African Americans, it also improved U.S. foreign relations. Unequal treatment of African Americans in the U.S. led to a great deal of acrimony from other countries. This was a major source of embarrassment for the U.S. government in the 1950’s and 1960’s, placing additional strain on foreign relations already tense from the Cold War.
While there were many civil rights advocates in the greater Wilmington area, the most prominent was longtime Wilmington physician, Hubert Arthur Eaton, who was the leader of the majority of civil rights battles in New Hanover County for more than three decades. Born in Fayetteville, NC in 1916, Hubert Eaton was a medical doctor, civil rights activist, and an award-winning tennis player. Eaton led efforts to desegregate many of Wilmington’s most prominent institutions, such as Wilmington College, the Wilmington YMCA, and the Municipal Golf Course. He graduated from Johnson C. Smith University in 1937 and earned his medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1942 at a time when African Americans could not enroll in any of North Carolina’s medical schools.
In 1943, Dr. Eaton migrated to Wilmington after marrying the daughter of a Wilmington doctor, Foster F. Burnett and entering partnership with his father-in-law. Hubert Eaton had extensive freedom to pursue legal action as his practice was overwhelmingly catered to African American patients. This made him resistant to any possible reprisals from his opposition. Dr. Eaton filed several major civil rights lawsuits in the 1950’s and 1960’s aimed at examining the truthfulness of the “separate but equal” decree established in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court case. The most prominent civil rights lawsuit he was a part of occurred in 1951, when Dr. Eaton and Dr. Daniel C. Roane sued the New Hanover County school system. Using the precedent set by a previous lawsuit filed in Richmond, Virginia, as well as through the use of photographs and statistics, the doctors argued successfully that black-only schools in New Hanover were harmfully inferior to those of whites. This lawsuit forced the New Hanover County school system to institute an extensive building program to augment school facilities.
In his book, “Every Man Should Try”, Dr. Eaton describes his 1961 meeting with Dr. John T. Hoggard, one of the founders of Wilmington College and the chairman of the Board of Trustees. While the two men had different views, they were able to sit and respectfully talk in a very open manner. During the meeting, Dr. Eaton expressed his disappointment and concern with the unfairness of the grossly unequal dual program of college education being provided for white students as compared to that being provided for Negro students. At the time, African American students attended class at the Williston College campus as they were not allowed to enroll at the College Road campus. To his surprise, Dr. Hoggard agreed. Hoggard, along with all of the other trustees (save one) were in favor of integration.
No paperwork was signed, but a gentlemen’s agreement was reached at the end of the meeting. Their agreement was that Wilmington College would be integrated during the summer of 1962 if Dr. Eaton would not pursue legal action against Wilmington College. In a demonstration of further resolve, Dr. Eaton invited Dr. Hoggard to speak with a group of concerned citizens in his office after hours one night. Dr. Hoggard agreed, and at the end of summer session in 1962, a notice appeared in local papers stating that Wilmington College would begin its integration in September.
When the fall semester began, Wilmington College had its first African American students in attendance in the form of Marshall Collins and Ernest Fullwood, the latter becoming the first African American to graduate from the school in 1966. Collins went on to pursue a career as a minister in Texas, while Fullwood pursued a legal career. While enrolled in Wilmington College, Fullwood became the first African American student to serve on the Wilmington College Student Senate. He stuck with his love of law after college, becoming an attorney, and later on, a judge.
Racial segregation proved to be detrimental to the advancement of Americans as a whole, as government funded African American facilities received insufficient funding and inadequate equipment. Desegregating institutions such as Wilmington College paved the way for different ethnic groups in America to experience higher levels of education and to positively contribute to the social institutions in America.