Alice Irby did not cry. After her parents left her standing on the steps of Cotten Hall at Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina on her first day as a college student, she could have been forgiven had she wept and clung to them.
It was not an easy time in America’s history. The year was 1950 — the year President Truman ordered the building of the hydrogen bomb, the year McCarthy began hunting Communists, the year the Korean War began. And it was an era in which it was unusual for women to uproot themselves from their families, strike out on their own, and go to college.
But no, Alice did not cry. Alice was ecstatic.
She yearned to escape the farming fields of eastern North Carolina. She wanted to take courses that were unusual for women at the time — political science and economics. She considered Duke and WC, and WC won out because “not having boys around” would be more conducive to studying.
Now, women were packed in Cotten Hall. All around, streamers dangled from the ceiling, bulletin boards hung plastered with notices of socials and rules, and boxes brimmed with curtains and bedspreads. Alice’s father, after carrying 27 boxes of shoes up three flights of stairs, was huffing and sweating. “How can one person have so many shoes?” he asked his daughter.
That evening, after her parents left, Alice raced to register for courses in the gymnasium, blindly signing up for professors whose reputations were unknown to her. She steered clear of the dorm mother, Anne Carter, who had already begun preaching to Alice and her roommate about courtesy and respect. “No necking!” Carter shouted during the weekends when boyfriends visited.
But Alice wasn’t concerned with boys in her first year. Like other women at WC in Greensboro, she was on fire and ready to blaze new trails.
For 30 years, women who graduated from Woman’s College — now known as the University of North Carolina at Greensboro — made their mark on the fields of science, education, and literature. They became policy-makers, brigadier generals, Pulitzer Prize-winning historians, NASA astronomers, businesswomen, space shuttle engineers, scholars, diplomats, city councilwomen, presidents, and acclaimed artists.
These women spent decades fighting for voting rights, marching and lobbying and battling for the right to an education, the right to work, the right to earn fair pay, the right to ride on a plane, the right to wear pants, the right to be considered equal.
• • •
From the time the school was founded, Woman’s College embodied the spirit of defiance, justified in the name of fairness. The college and the professors educated women with the intention of giving them the opportunity to be equal and stand on their own, to use their education as they wished.
“If the State proposed to pay for nearly all the expenses of a young man’s higher education, it ought to do at least as much for his sister,” declared the first annual catalog in 1893.
Many people thought this idea was treasonous and insane.
But for more than a century, before women even had a right to vote, women had a right to learn in Guilford County. In 1949, WC was the largest college for women in the United States. Future Academy Award nominees, doctors, lawyers, executives, and professors raced through the quad at one point, skipped over the muddy streets to Jackson Library, and threw their caps at commencement in the historic Aycock Auditorium. Alice and her friends sunbathed behind the dorms — out of public sight — and had food fights and ate ice cream at Yum Yum’s and learned the rules of bridge. But Alice also passed out on her typewriter from exhaustion, pulled all-night study sessions with pots of coffee, knocked on her professors’ doors with questions at dawn, and read stacks of books until her eyes crossed.
“It was a place of great opportunity,” Alice says. “Young women were held in high regard and things were expected of us. We were expected to do it all. And we were alive intellectually.”
• • •
In 1891, North Carolina vied for last place in the nation for public school systems. The illiteracy rate rose to 36 percent while the national average decreased to less than 14 percent. Teachers here earned half of what other instructors in the country made. The state spent one-sixth of the national average on its students.
Something had to be done. North Carolina needed good teachers if they hoped to gain national respect.
Charles Duncan McIver had lobbied the state legislature for years to establish a state normal school for women. Whether it was his indomitable physical presence or his insistent letters addressed to policy-makers in Raleigh, the state relented and passed a bill to establish The Normal and Industrial School in Greensboro. The board of directors offered McIver the presidency on June 13, 1891.
The bill proposed that the women at school who would “pledge themselves to teach” would be granted free tuition. However, the school had a limited view of what women should do. The objectives of the school were clear: “(1) to give to young women such education as shall fit them for teaching; (2) to give instruction to young women in drawing, telegraphy, type-writing, stenography, and such other industrial arts as may be suitable to their sex and conducive to their support and usefulness.”
McIver wanted to make sure all the women who learned at the normal school would succeed. The one-page application he created was plainspoken and direct. One question — “How long do you expect to remain a student in the institution?” — was perhaps directed at women who intended to only remain at school until they married. Many times, the answers were just as blunt. “Probably until I finish,” wrote Anna Bagwell one year. And, McIver wanted to let the applicants know the normal school was a serious institution. “There are so many good students who want the places here that we do not wish them to be crowded out by those who regard their opportunities lightly,” he wrote at the end of the application.
Word spread. Before long, applications poured into the campus post office. McIver picked 198 students for the first graduating class in 1892. Women desperate for an education wrote letters, begging McIver for a chance at a different life. “My parents are poor and have a large family to educate, and so they are not able to help me, I do not want to stop school on that account,” wrote Clara Marshall in 1898. “I am ready and willing if there is any thing I can do to earn an education for my self. And if there is any vacancy in your school I could fill please let me know at once.”
In the following years, the success of the normal school was statewide news. Women had a chance for education, somewhat funded by the state, if only barely so. Women landed jobs and could be independent — still rare cases. There was one particular student with a fiery spirit and similar energetic attitude McIver certainly would have taken a liking to.
• • •
Alice learned early that discipline is a quality that marks successful people. At least, her mother certainly thought so. When Alice missed her curfew, she chopped block after block of wood — at 10 years old. When she said a bad word, especially darn, her mother washed out her mouth with red pepper. Respect and self-control were cemented into Alice’s personality by the time she was a teenager.
Her family prided themselves on their gumption, too. Alice says her father was a “self-taught and self-made man,” who opened his own furniture store before World War II. Her brother taught himself how to build a car at 16 years old. When it came time to choose a college, Alice’s father told her to go wherever she wanted; he would find a way to pay.
Alice chose Woman’s College, just like her mother. Alice loved the structure of the school, which required that students take two years of English, science or math, and history, and spend two years studying a foreign language. Freshmen weren’t allowed off campus for the first six weeks of school. Alice befriended other women during the daily 6 p.m. dinner (students were assigned to sit with the same group for the entire semester), and they held competitions in Jackson Library to see who could read the most magazines.
Alice learned golf and archery. She gained entry into the prestigious honors society, The Golden Chain, and was part of the group that voted the first lesbian into the club — a decision administrators never questioned.
During her sophomore year, Alice married her longtime boyfriend, Claud. That year, 1951, marked the first time Alice petitioned for change. Since Claud had joined the Navy, Alice wanted to remain in the dorms, where married women were not
allowed to live. She appealed the school’s rule and won. And when her friends asked her why she was coming back to college — why didn’t she want to stay at home and wait for her husband? — Alice replied, “To get an education.”
And she did. Women were required to be in their rooms from 7 to 10 p.m. to study. The college handed out “Busy” signs for the students to hang on their doors during study hours. When class was out, Alice walked to Professor Warren Ashby’s house to watch the news and discuss the political climate.
In the daytime hours, the students found the brightest minds in the country right on campus. Woman’s College attracted visitors and resident artists like Eleanor Roosevelt, Flannery O’Connor, and Robert Frost. When Alice and her friends saw the famed writers, they struck up conversations.
Faculty was strict. One professor, Dr. Mae Busy, used to point to students and say, “Inscribe this upon the tablets of your mind!” Dr. Richard Bardolph wrote that he began his teaching years passionately. “I began with a full fifteen-hour load . . . determined even if it killed me (and them too, for that matter) to fire my students’ interest in history and government.”
The women were already hungry for knowledge. “I wanted to armor myself for any gathering where the names Kandinsky or Picasso came up,” wrote Mary Bowers, one of Alice’s friends.
In 1954, right before graduation, Alice and Mary were eating dinner at Sunset Restaurant when a friend ran up with a copy of a Greensboro newspaper. The outcome of Brown v. Board of Education had just been announced. The group cheered. But they didn’t know the decision would alter the course for the university and inspire a decade of turbulence and change — much of which Alice would play a key role in.
• • •
In 1959, Alice took a job as director of admissions at WC. Just three years before, the college had admitted its first two African-American students, JoAnne Smart and Bettye Ann Davis, whose arrival on campus was uneventful. “I really believed that when they said that black people could go to other schools that somebody meant that,” Smart later said. Smart, from Raleigh, was a fast learner who, unlike Alice, did not favor numbers or diagramming sentences. Smart preferred history and had been a cheerleader and president of her class in high school. But her parents were fearful of what would happen when Smart went to a previously all-white school.
Would students insult her? Would other women taunt her and call her names or hit her? Would teachers be fair?
That September, the Smarts drove onto campus with an overheated car, steam billowing out from under the hood. Smart registered while her father filled the radiator with more water. She moved into Shaw Hall. That evening, she and Davis were too afraid to venture to the dining hall to eat dinner, so they devoured a box of chocolates Davis’s parents had left. The next morning, the white students stared and whispered when Davis and Smart walked into the dining hall.
Events would continue to challenge the women. There was no social life for the black students on campus, even in the years that followed. Smart and Davis went to the North Carolina A&T State College campus on weekends, and when they tried to dine at a restaurant with white friends, they were turned away. One dorm maid forced their boyfriends to wait outside instead of in the parlor at the dorms. When Davis went to College Place United Methodist Church on a Sunday, both she and Smart were called into the dean’s office the next day and told it was unacceptable for them to dare to go to a known church for whites, “That we should not think that just because we were on campus as students that other areas of the community were open and available,” Davis later said.
Meanwhile, Alice was touring the state as the newly appointed director of admissions, searching for other black women who could succeed at WC. The women needed to be tough, smart, and ambitious to withstand the volatile culture they’d potentially face. In 1960, several WC students joined with other black students from A&T and famously sat in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, protesting the discrimination that kept the restaurant segregated. To sit at the counter, the women had to break the honor code — they’d failed to sign in or out of the dorms, or had lied about where they were going. As a result, the university expelled or suspended the students, and the women gathered in Aycock for an assembly meeting with Chancellor Gordon Blackwell. Alice did not mince words with the chancellor. “If these young women are expelled from this university or college because of a permission slip when something major is going on, I just don’t feel that I can remain here,” she said.
The students who were expelled were reinstated, and others were not suspended at all.
Change continued to march its way across campus. WC was now part of the UNC system, and white men did not have a major university in Greensboro to attend. A&T served the black population, WC the women. Should a new school be built? Should WC integrate?
In what would become the most divisive decision in the school’s history, in 1962, administrators decided that WC should admit men. Alice, still the director of admissions, backed the decision. Logically, she knew the integration was inevitable and made sense economically.
In 1963, men were admitted and the college’s name officially changed to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “Something was lost,” Alice says. In a time when women were still treated as unequal, they’d lost something they could claim as their own.
• • •
Alice, newly divorced, left in 1962 for Princeton, New Jersey, and joined the Educational Testing Service. She was promoted to executive, and later landed a job at Rutgers University as the vice president for student services, the first woman vice president at a major university. The New York Times wrote an article about the occasion and called her “the hard-working Mrs. Irby.”
Her ambition came at a cost socially. Other mothers on the block didn’t know how to relate to Alice, remembers her daughter, Andrea Irby. “She was doing things other women in the neighborhood weren’t doing,” Andrea says. “And she didn’t have a man backing her up. No alimony, no child support, nothing. She was often the only female in the room among executives.” When Andrea was in high school, the principal pulled her aside and asked her, “Don’t you think you’d be growing up better if your mother were around?”
But Andrea defended her mother. Alice taught her to have confidence, and that if she worked hard enough, nothing was impossible. “What the Woman’s College gave to my mother, she gave to me,” Andrea says.
Things were rarely easy for Alice. The IRS audited her frequently because the bureau couldn’t believe a single mother made that much money. During her travels as an executive, Alice was once refused a seat on a plane because she was a woman. She held up the plane for hours, demanding a copy of the policy stating women couldn’t fly on executive flights. When she returned home, Alice and a friend drew up a letter to United Airlines, threatening to sue for discrimination. United Airlines suspended the “executive flights” two months later.
In 1998, Alice retired and moved to Pinehurst. She grew closer to her fellow alumnae, especially Mary Bowers. Frequently, the women make trips back to campus and reminisce over their time at WC.
In October 2013, Alice and 29 other women gathered at UNCG for a dinner in their honor. The program was named “Women of Distinction.” After Alice and the other women received a bouquet of yellow roses and standing ovations, Chancellor Linda Brady stepped to the podium. As she addressed the audience, she looked to the women and kept repeating one phrase.
“What an honor it is.
What an honor it is.
What an honor it is.”