Gwendolyn Harrison Smith, the first African-American woman to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has died at age 91. Smith, who lived in Bessemer City, NC and passed away on February 28.
At the age of 25, Smith arrived on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill on June 11, 1951. She had already obtained a bachelor’s degree in history from Spelman College, and a master’s degree in Spanish from the University of California and was serving as a professor at Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte, at the time she applied to take a Spanish class at UNC Chapel Hill.
The application that she completed to take that class during the summer session, did not have a place to denote a person’s race at the time. She did indicate that she had attended historically black Spelman, taught at Johnson C. Smith. University records also show that she indicated her race on her dormitory residence paperwork.
Upon arrival, Smith was able to pay a deposit and receive her room key, but soon after was told that she would not be permitted to live in the dormitory or register for classes, as the university had the authority to act on applications from “Negro graduate students.” Smith wrote a letter to then-Gov. W. Kerr Scott, who was also chairman of the UNC board of trustees, and subsequently filed suit against the university on July 5, 1951.
In an emergency meeting with the trustees of the university, it was voted to approve allowing Smith into the program. Her federal lawsuit was eventually dismissed.