(Edited excerpt from: “From a Grove of Oaks,” by the late George Troxler, professor of history and University Historian)

In the spring and fall of 1963, one year before passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the first two black students entered Elon with little fanfare. Without a support network of other students, life for the first African American students was both lonely and challenging. White students and faculty often were uncomfortable interacting with black students because a majority had never attended integrated schools. Elon’s racial integration went smoothly for the institution itself, but it was only a step in individual, campus, and national journeys.

The timing of Elon’s desegregation paralleled that of other private schools in the state. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had admitted African Americans to graduate programs in 1951, and both Chapel Hill and Woman’s College (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) admitted African Americans to their undergraduate programs in the fall of 1956. Guilford College admitted the first black students in the spring of 1962, Duke admitted the first African American undergraduates in the fall of 1963, Davidson admitted African Americans in the fall of 1964, and Catawba College admitted African Americans the following year.

President J. Earl Danieley acted on his own to bring about desegregation without a formal plan or resolution of the Board of Trustees. A successful first step was made in the spring of 1963 when Paul DeMontaigne, a native of Martinique, applied for admission to the evening school. DeMontaigne was a faculty member at Palmer Institute, the private, historically black school in nearby Sedalia, and he needed to complete several undergraduate courses before pursuing a planned graduate program. Danieley personally admitted DeMontaigne and escorted him to his first class. On learning that DeMontaigne lacked the funds to pay for the courses he wished to take, Danieley secured contributions from several faculty members to pay his tuition and fees.

In the fall of 1963, Glenda K. Phillips, the valedictorian at the segregated Jordan Sellars High School in Burlington, became the first black student to enroll in the daytime program. Although Danieley had no memory of a college official contacting the Jordan Sellars principal, Phillips recalled in a 2005 interview that her high school principal had been approached by an Elon College official, who told him that Elon wanted to admit its first black day student and asked for a recommendation. The principal contacted Phillips’s family and advised her to apply. She applied for admission as a commuting student and was awarded a full-tuition scholarship.

Glenda Phillips attended Elon for three semesters, riding the public bus from her home in Burlington to campus each day. In 2005 Phillips recounted the difficulties of being the only African American student on campus. She walked to her classes alone and often felt ignored in class. Phillips recalled visiting a residence hall when invited by a female classmate, but another student asked her not to return to the dormitory.

The first African American to graduate from Elon was Eugene Perry ’69. Also an outstanding Jordan Sellars High School graduate, Perry enrolled in 1965 and commuted while living with his uncle’s family in Burlington.70 Forty years later, Perry acknowledged his disappointment that few faculty or students offered support or friendship. He recalled a few racial slurs yelled from dormitory windows but also remembered the cordiality of Danieley, the advice and support from William and Bessie Sloan, and the friendship of two male students with whom he played in the marching band.

The university honored Glenda Phillips and Eugene Perry in 2006 by naming the annual Black Excellence Awards Banquet the Phillips-Perry Black Excellence Awards Banquet in their honor. For both Phillips and Perry, as well as for other African American students who enrolled in the 1960s and early 1970s, Elon was not their first choice for a college, but the ability to commute from home and the availability of financial aid made it appealing. Feeling socially unwelcome or having no desire to attend planned student social activities, they often met friends through the local black churches, thus creating a bond between the local community and black students.