Feature Story

Breaking the Color Barrier

Etta Mae Whitner Patterson helped desegregate her hometown before becoming the first African-American student at its college

By Jon Elliston

HemlockEtta Mae Patterson posed for the 1963 yearbook in the Phillips Hall breezeway, with Rhoades Hall in the background.

Etta Mae Whitner Patterson’s education happened during a tidal wave of social change that she helped drive ashore. An Asheville native, Patterson was the first black student admitted to Asheville-Biltmore College, UNC Asheville’s predecessor, in the fall of 1961. “We were right on time, and everything just came together,” she remembers of the struggles she joined to desegregate Asheville’s public spaces. Now 69, she has vivid memories of her time in the trenches of the civil rights movement.

During her teens as a student at Stephens-Lee High School, Patterson became an early leader in ASCORE, the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality. The group, which practiced nonviolent resistance, was the catalyst for breaking the deep-rooted tradition of segregation in downtown Asheville.

Because she was raised in separate and unequal schools that lacked the resources of local white schools, higher education presented Patterson with a whole new series of challenges. She remembers her time at college as a “pressure cooker” of a situation that she was ultimately ready to leave. But while it was a trying time, “I look back on it with no regrets,” she says.

“I’ve been given a lot of lemons, and I’ve had to make a lot of lemonade,” she says with a hearty gust of laughter. Below are excerpts of our recent conversation with her.

Where did you grow up?

Five blocks from the tunnel, on Hildebrand Street [in Asheville’s East End neighborhood]. I could actually draw the community, because that’s how well I knew it. Everybody knew who lived in every house. Our village raised us. Our village corrected us. I wish we had that now—we don’t have a village. That whole area was very close-knit.

So growing up, you knew a lot of the kids around you?

Yes. We literally lived together. I call myself a Metho-Baptist [because of all the churches she frequented].

You got a full childhood of religion, didn’t you?

We respected our religion. There could never have been an ASCORE had we not had that training. They didn’t teach us to hate: We were not to hate a person because they were white, we were to hate the behavior, the segregation, the Jim Crow. Because we knew we were not born inferior.

Etta maePatterson holds her great-granddaughter, Aubri.

I don’t remember having any fear, I really don’t. Even coming to the college, I didn’t have fear. I had some reservations; I didn’t know what I was going to meet and what challenges. But when we were marching in the street, we did what we had to do. We knew segregation was wrong, so we stood up to what was wrong.

So you were in high school when ASCORE was founded and you became active pushing back against bigotry.

We started with discussions about segregation. It was a terrible thing to go downtown and see a water faucet marked “White,” engraved into the marble above it, and one marked “Colored.” The white ones were clean, the colored ones were dirty and not sanitary. We knew that was wrong.

ASCORE evolved, as we began to organize in 1958. We discussed strategy, and we practiced things. We practiced being slapped, and what our reaction would be to it. Being spat upon. Being talked about. Being kicked around. And we adhered to the teaching of Dr. Martin Luther King, who adhered to the Lord’s teaching: If a man slaps you on the cheek, you turn the other one. We were trained how to sit at the lunch counters, where we understood we were going to be rejected.

How did ASCORE decide which segregated businesses to target with protests?

First of all, we negotiated. We made appointments with the managers and the powers that be at the different places. The emphasis was on the lunch counters, and segregation in public places like the library. Many of the businesses would say anything to delay, to put us off. Unfortunately, we had to pressure them, with marches and boycotts.

You graduated from high school in 1961. What drew you to Asheville-Biltmore College?

I was chosen [by leaders in her community], because at the time, somebody had to go that was going to be representative of the black community, who was not going to be overly violent or aggressive, who was going to be able to compromise when needed, negotiate and get along. I must confess, I did not want to go; I didn’t want to blaze a trail. But all my friends had gone to college, and I was there by myself. And I really did want to go to college, but in a different town to get out of the controversy. They chose me to be the representative to go in, and I accepted the challenge.

I was aware that I was not only representing myself, I was representing the black race. Therefore I had to be “smarter than,” I had to be perfect in everything I did.” —Etta Mae Whitner Patterson

That was a lot to take on.

Oh, it was. Because at that time I was aware that I was not only representing myself, I was representing the black race. Therefore, I knew I had to be “smarter than,” I had to be perfect in everything I did. And unfortunately I was none of that. I definitely wasn’t “smarter than.” That frustrates me even now: I’m 69 years old, and that’s something I’ve really had to overcome personally, that I was not as successful academically as I should have been.

When you were growing up, and in high school, you were surrounded by a support network, and now you’re in college, and you’re on your own.

On my own. This is not that important, but just think: I couldn’t date nobody. I’m right at the age where I want to date and go out. I’m a young adult. But I couldn’t do that, because if I was ever associated with any of those guys, it would have been very negative for me. I had some very good white female friends, and we developed a close relationship. But even as close as we were, we could not have been as close as I was to the people I had just left, because we lived in different communities. Socially, I did have a wonderful time at the college.

How were you received by professors and staff?

They were professionals, and they treated me well. But I feel like I was a challenge to them because I was so far behind.

What did you do after college?

I married a man who was in the service, and we ended up settling in Greenville, S.C. I was quite active in the community there, not so much in racial organizing, but more in jobs, housing, and drug prevention.
In 1968, I got a job as the first black woman cashier in a store downtown, a discount store. There were registers at the front and the back; of course, I was on the back register. And I worked for years as a substitute teacher in the public schools.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I just want to say to the young people, both black and white: You need to think about others. Get an education so that you can help somebody. We are here to help each other.

Last summer, Chancellor Anne Ponder hosted some 125 guests, including Patterson, during the Stephens-Lee High School 50th Reunion event at the Janice W. Brumit Pisgah House. Members of the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality (ASCORE) organization were recognized and honored for their courageous work toward racial parity.

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