Elon trailblazer: 'I was not afraid'
Glenda Phillips Hightower visited the university on Thursday and spent part of her day talking with current students about her struggles and triumphs in 1963 as Elon's first full-time African-American student.
By Sarah Mulnick '17
Elon University's Multicultural Center hosted Glenda Phillips Hightower, the university’s first black student, on Feb. 20, 2014, as part of ongoing campus celebrations of Black History Month.
Hightower attended then-Elon College in 1963, enrolling as the first and – at that time – only full-time black student. She was a pre-medicine major and joined the marching band as a clarinetist during her studies.
Although Elon was the right decision at the time, she said, it was not an easy one to make. There were difficulties that came with attending all-white colleges the year before passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act while the nation struggled to define racial equality.
“It was not as ugly as it could have been," Hightower said of her Elon experience. "Integration was going to occur anyway – why not pragmatically and peacefully?”
And that, she said, was the approach administrators at the time took to integrating the college. It allowed for a more peaceful integration than what was witnessed at other schools.
“I was not afraid," Hightower said. "I do not remember every single detail but do remember being very happy. And I am happy now, to be back on Elon’s campus.”
Despite the difficulties, Hightower said, even now she is glad that she took the opportunity to attend Elon. She said that she felt that there was a lot of pressure from her community for her to do well, but she dealt with it by keeping in mind that she was getting an education – an experience she did not undervalue.
Though Hightower withdrew from Elon during her sophomore year and moved north, she did not stop going to school, and 16 years later she graduated from college. She said Thursday that she planned to return to school again in the next few years to continue learning.
“I am glad that I read everything I could,” she said. “One thing that has always been true, and will always be true, is that I am interested in education.”
While there were not always good times at Elon, she said, she dealt with it. Her education was her top priority.“You treat negativity as if it is not happening unless it is physical,” Hightower said. "Some other person’s ignorance is not your problem.”
Although she faced discrimination and struggles at Elon and later in life, Hightower said, she had hope things were changing.
“Racism is alive and well and living in America,” she said. “However, there are some areas in this country where it is being solved. Stay open. Stay in the game.”