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Alumnus recalls role in 1955 desegregation at UNC

Experience inspired his professional future as a social worker and advocate

By Susan White

William Lofquist (MSW, ’60; AB, ‘55) grew up with a firm understanding of the value of social justice and community building. As a child in Asheville, Lofquist watched his father, a Presbyterian minister and lay social worker, frequently visit the sick, work with at-risk children and advocate for civil rights for blacks. Lofquist had always admired his father’s activism, but as he grew older and began to hear his parents’ stories about life in Mississippi — of jailings and lynch mobs — his own passion for social justice deepened.

Years later, that commitment led Lofquist to play an instrumental role in helping to break a racial barrier at UNC: the enrollment of the first black undergraduate students in 1955. Those efforts, he said, helped guide his professional future as a social worker, youth advocate, field instructor, community developer, and author.

“That experience and many others I had during my college years taught me about community change,” said Lofquist, who now lives in Tucson, Ariz. “And that is if you want to bring about change, you have to find your allies and get them to agree with you if you are to achieve the goal.”

From the moment he enrolled as a UNC freshman in 1951, Lofquist searched for ways to improve race relations and to strengthen broader awareness around marginalized individuals. Historic change was already happening on campus. Following a lawsuit and a 1951 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals, UNC’s law school admitted four black students. The medical school soon followed, admitting its first black student.

Lofquist quickly joined the Campus Y, which was leading the integration movement, and helped organize efforts to bring more African American speakers to campus. “We were trying to influence students’ attitudes toward integration,” he explained.

Then in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, ruling that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional. The momentous moment further inspired the work of a small group of UNC students, and a committee was organized to charge forward. The time had come to integrate the University’s undergraduate students.

“We developed a pretty simple strategy,” Lofquist recalled. “If we were going to integrate, we had to have recruits and that became my job.”
Although he had little concept of the principles behind community organizing, Lofquist understood that without broad buy-in, the goal would remain out of reach. But within time, he connected with educators, parents and leaders within Durham’s black community. All threw their support behind the movement and helped recruit three young African American students for the fight: Ralph and Leroy Frasier, who were brothers, and John Lewis Brandon.

“It just happened that we connected with an incredible network of folks in Durham who became allies and took the lead in determining the outcome,” Lofquist said.

Despite the admission of black students at the graduate level, the undergrads’ applications for enrollment were swiftly denied. The community was undeterred. At a meeting in Durham in the spring of 1955, Lofquist listened as black leaders pledged to move forward with another lawsuit and to the Supreme Court, if necessary.

At this same meeting, Lofquist finally got the chance to meet the three students he had helped recruit for the cause. He invited them to visit the UNC campus and in April of that year, he offered them a guided tour. Although they were each involved in a historic pursuit of justice, they exchanged only small talk that day and enjoyed the warm spring sun. A chance encounter with a friend from the University track team reminded Lofquist that some were still wrestling with the idea of progress.

“He saw us walking and commented to me later that I was ‘tampering with the mores of the community,’ ” Lofquist recalled. “But that was the only comment I heard about what we were doing.”

Lofquist, then a senior, was preparing to graduate and enter the seminary. He knew he probably would not see the three young men for a while, if ever again. In early September 1955, while on the road to Raleigh, Lofquist received the news. A radio announcer broke the story: a federal court had ruled that the students could not be denied University admission based on their race. Soon after, Brandon and the Frasier brothers registered for classes at UNC.

In the following years, Lofquist graduated from a seminary school in Virginia and came back to UNC, where he enrolled in the School of Social Work’s MSW program. He returned to the School in 1962 as a faculty field instructor. Much of his career was spent working at state and national levels with community-based prevention and youth development programs. He also authored books and articles focused on creating positive change.

Lofquist has reconnected with Ralph Frasier several times over the years, including after last year’s 55th anniversary celebration that recognized the students’ pioneering role in desegregating UNC. Frasier, who received a law degree from N.C. Central University, worked for more than 30 years in banking. His brother, Leroy, became a teacher on Long Island, N.Y., while Brandon went on to become a senior research chemist with Dow Chemical Corp. and a part-time teacher at a community college.

“I know that time was pretty rough on them,” Lofquist said of the students’ experience at Carolina. “And I wish that I had been there with them. But there’s no question that what they did was worthwhile.”

Recently, Lofquist revisited a letter that he originally received in late summer 1955. It was typed and signed from L. B. Frasier, who wanted to thank Lofquist for helping his sons, Ralph and Leroy.

“We want you to know that a great deal of the credit for this accomplishment is due to you and your other associates who suggested that we file the applications and encouraged us along that line,” Frasier wrote in September 1955.

“Probably we would not have done so had it not been for you and we shall forever be (grateful) to you.”

Decades later, Lofquist still doesn’t spend much time pondering over his own contributions to equality. His efforts were simply part of a greater goal that could not have been achieved without the broader community’s commitment to justice, he said.

“That experience really taught me that when you start an initiative to bring about some sort of change, if you build from the ground up, you don’t know what kind of opportunities are going to open up. But they inevitably do, and that to me is good community social work.”