About Mary Carroll

Mary Carroll Robertson (nee Mary Carroll) arrived at Elon in fall 1977 and won election as Homecoming Queen in 1979. The practice of naming a Homecoming Court continues, but it was in full-swing in the 1970s, and Carroll’s election was a high honor. Some white students, however, booed Carroll when she was crowned. Adding to the injury, the white editors of the yearbook did not place the customary Homecoming spread in the 1980 yearbook. The school’s information officer explained that the students working on the yearbook had simply missed a deadline. Two African American football players, James Strickland and Alonzo Craig, nonetheless burned their yearbooks in protest. Scores of other Black students followed their example. Not until 2019 did any representatives of Elon attempt to make amends.

Photo Gallery

Timeline

  • 1963
    Glenda Phillips
    Glenda Phillips becomes the first full-time Black student at Elon.
  • 1964
    Civil Rights Act
    The Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in education.
  • 1968
    Black Studies Program
    Black students join a coalition at San Francisco State University and successfully fight for a Black Studies Program (part of a new College of Ethnic Studies).
  • 1969
    Eugene Perry
    Eugene Perry becomes the first Black student to graduate from Elon.
  • 1979
    Mary Carroll
    Mary Carroll elected first Black Homecoming Queen in Elon History.
  • 1980
    Phi Psi Cli
    The Phi Psi Cli (Elon Yearbook) does not include its traditional Homecoming spread. Students burn yearbooks, in a protest so substantial Jet magazine acknowledges it.
  • 1980
    NAIA National Champions
    The Elon football team wins back-to-back NAIA national championships in 1980 and 1981.
  • 1983
    Vanessa Williams
    Vanessa Williams is crowned the first Black Miss America (crowned in September for 1984 “reign”).
  • 1992
    Eva Clayton
    Eva Clayton becomes first black person elected to the US House of Representatives since the Wilmington Race Massacre and white supremacy campaign (1898).
  • 1994
    African and African American Studies
    Establishment of new minor at Elon: African and African American Studies

Sources

Primary Sources

  • Phi Psi Cli (Elon Yearbook), Homecoming Spread (1978, 1980) – The 1979 student yearbook contained coverage of the 1978 Homecoming Court. There were no Homecoming photos in 1980, but the spread returned in 1981 (covering the 1980 Court). Notably, this Court included runner-up Nish Bynum and escort Ramon Jackson, both African American.
  • “Black Queen Left Out: Students Burn Yearbooks,” Jet Magazine (June 19, 1980): 52. – Brief discussion of the yearbook burning, including the explanation by spokesman Tim McDowell that students simply missed a deadline.
  • Joy Hamilton and Robin Adams, “The Unspoken Prejudice,” The Pendulum (March 5, 1981) – Hamilton and Adams mention Carroll as an indicator of Black success at Elon, even as they document and critique anti-Black racism among the predominantly white student body.
  • Mary Carroll Robertson, Interviews by L’Tanya Richmond in “Elon’s Black History: A Story to Be Told” (Master’s Thesis, Duke University, 2004) – In these two interviews, Carroll-Robertson recounts her day-to-day experience as an Elon student.  The first of three interviews, in which she discusses Homecoming directly, is missing, but the supplementary material is very rich.
  • Krista Naposki, “Former student shares his experiences from the 70s,” The Pendulum (March 3, 2005) – Bryant Colson, first African American President of SGA, returned to campus for an interview and commented on Carroll’s composure when she did not appear in the yearbook.
  • Robin Adams Cheeley, “Yes Elon, You Can Fix This,” Greensboro News and Record (November 19, 2019) – Cheely, a coauthor of the 1981 Pendulum letter above, wrote to describe and raise concerns about Mary Carroll Robertson’s return to campus in 2019 and her recognition at Homecoming.

Secondary Sources

In-Class Work

Any of the primary sources individually merits a close reading. Taken together, they offer good possibilities for in-class work. Examples include:

Plausible Deniability

COR Goals: Curiosity and Questioning, Global Perspective, Communication Skills, and Critical Thinking

Activity/Discussion Questions: Have students read in class two brief documents: the Jet Magazine discussion of the yearbook burning and the first full paragraph of Mary Carroll Robertson’s first interview with L’Tanya Richmond, in which she describes the immediate transfer of her roommate. Prepare for a class discussion by asking them to do an informal writing on the following questions: Do you think the yearbook editors intended to exclude Carroll because of her race? Do you think her first-year roommate transferred because of her race? What evidence do you have?  Put yourself in Carroll’s shoes. How might dealing with these two events have been different if the white students had been more explicit about their anti-Black racism? If time allows, students may find the discussion more illuminating if they have first read one of the secondary sources about campus climate.

Common “Spaces,” White “Spaces”

COR Goals: Curiosity and Questioning, Global Perspective, Communication Skills, and Critical Thinking

Activity/Discussion Questions: A persistent theme in American life is the assumption of many white Americans that certain ostensibly common spaces or roles actually ought to be reserved for whites (sometimes this is referred to as “white normativity”). Mary Carroll encountered many situations in which she upended white Elon students’ assumptions that certain spaces or roles ought to be reserved for whites: her dorm room, the Homecoming Court, the yearbook, her classes, Greek Life, etc. Take the sensational event of the Homecoming and yearbook slights off of the table. Instead, have students read L’Tanya Richmond’s interviews with Carroll for homework and to identify ways in which Elon faculty or students communicated that certain aspects of the Elon experience were whites only. Work in groups to outline specific gatekeeping strategies whites used–as well as strategies to bring greater equity and inclusion.

Restorative Justice

COR Goals: Curiosity and Questioning, Global Perspective, Communication Skills, Critical Thinking, Problem Solving

Activity/Discussion Questions: Please read in class Robin Adams Cheeley’s op-ed, “Yes Elon, you can fix this” about Homecoming 2019. Emphasize that people of goodwill responded to Mary Carroll Robertson’s presence on campus with real generosity. Working in groups, conduct a postmortem of the event. What did Elon do well? What were opportunities to do better? Where do we go from here? Are there additional steps Elon ought to take to commemorate this series of events or to make things write (i.e., what would it look like to “fix” this?)? Have groups submit recommendations in the form of a memo to the Committee on Elon History and Memory.

 

Take-Home Assignments

Resilience

COR Goals: Research Skills, Broad Base of Knowledge, Communication Skills

Assignment: Mary Carroll’s is a story of both resilience and systemic racism. The secondary literature is clear about the cost of microaggressions on Black student health and success. This exercise is about teaching students to recognize Black resilience and to map concepts from the secondary literature onto specific situations. Please have them read all of the primary and secondary material; to identify coping strategies upon which Black students rely; and to find examples of Carroll implementing those strategies. This is not conceived as a formal research paper.

Contemporary Microaggressions

COR Goals: Curiosity and Questioning, Research Skills, Broad Base of Knowledge, Global Perspective, Communication Skills, Critical Thinking, Problem Solving

Assignment: Students ought to read all of the primary sources as well as some of the secondary literature on microaggressions (either the Solorzano, Ceja,and Yossoor article or instructor-provided) for this assignment requiring close observation of the contemporary campus. This is a sensitive assignment and one that might both engender unproductive conversations and produce a disproportionate burden for students of color if interviews are permitted. Instead, find a disciplinary-appropriate way for students to explore contested racial conventions and identify contemporary microaggressions: by keeping a journal of “field observations,” for instance; reading and noting the racial politics of the last five years of the student yearbook; reviewing microaggressions documented within Elon’s own media; etc.  Output could take the form of the field notes or of a paper contrasting and comparing the experience of Black students in Mary Carroll’s generation to those of today.

Institutional Responsibility

COR Goals: Curiosity and Questioning, Research Skills, Broad Base of Knowledge, Global Perspective, Communication Skills, Critical Thinking, Problem Solving

Assignment: Elon has undertaken many initiatives to improve the climate for Black students in the 2000s, including the work of the Presidential Task Force on Black Student, Faculty, and Staff Experiences (cf. the spring 2019 report). More recently, the Elon Black Alumni Network has recommended additional steps. Evaluate these recommendations. Would they solve the problems Mary Carroll encountered?  The problems described in the literature? What is missing?