As peace broke out in the years following WWII, the University of North Carolina was already a storied, highly regarded educational institution. The school routinely received applications from the best and the brightest, and the UNC admissions department was delighted to admit to its Ph.D. program a 25-year-old college teacher who already held a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in Spanish. This was a woman who had been the valedictorian at her high school graduation, which she achieved at the age of 13. Only after this new student arrived on campus, was assigned a dormitory room and issued a key was she informed that her admission had been withdrawn. The reason? She was black. The year was 1951, and the woman was Gwendolyn L. Harrison.
Years later, Gwendolyn’s oldest daughter, Carla Smith Brown, was quoted in an interview with the Gaston Gazette as saying, “My momma had a lot of spunk, a lot of fight in her.” Well, yeah. Gwendolyn was not deterred. She was aware that four African-American students had already been admitted to the UNC law school. In a heartfelt letter to a local newspaper, she wrote, “I was proud because I thought that North Carolina at least was about to live up to the democratic ideals which are a part of the heritage of our great land.” She also wrote to Governor Bob Scott, then the chairman of the UNC Board of Trustees.
After consulting her physician father and the NAACP, within weeks Gwendolyn had filed a federal lawsuit seeking that her admission be reinstated. An emergency meeting of university trustees was called, and after much debate, the trustees reinstated her admission in a landslide vote. Gwendolyn Harrison became the first African-American woman to attend the University of North Carolina.
Given her accomplishments, it’s entirely appropriate that Gwendolyn’s name will grace the first in a series of structures at Glen Lennox designed to inspire a new generation of trailblazers and change-makers. The Gwendolyn will be a four-story, 106,000-square-foot Class A office space equipped with every modern amenity.
The evolution of Glen Lennox reflects a purposeful effort to honor the legacy of individuals who have contributed to the greater good of the community, the university, our state, and broader society. We can envision conversations being sparked by curious folk who wonder who the “Gwendolyn” is at The Gwendolyn at Glen Lennox.
“UNC First: Gaston woman helped pave way for blacks to attend UNC Chapel Hill” by Kevin Ellis, Gaston Gazette, March 5, 2017
“Remembering Gwendolyn Harrison, the First African-American Woman to Attend UNC”, by Nicholas Graham, News and Perspectives from University Archives and Records Management Sources, April 2017. The Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.