- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2007

SWANNANOA, N.C. — There is no monument to Alma Shippy. No plaque describes how, in 1952, the shy teenager packed a bag of clothes, caught a ride in a friend’s pickup truck and walked into history on the campus of Warren Wilson Junior College. It’s an obscure vignette in civil rights history. Mr. Shippy not only was Warren Wilson’s first black student, but one of the few to attend any segregated college or junior college by invitation — and not by court order and armed escort.

A core of Mr. Shippy’s family and friends — some of whom paved his way and some whose path was paved by him — want wider attention for what they see as a bright moment of brotherhood in one of the South’s darkest eras.

“There were no dogs, no guns. He didn’t have to be shot at. There was nobody that was beaten up, nobody died because he came here,” says Rodney Lytle, a 1974 Warren Wilson graduate and now the school’s multicultural adviser. “And that — that story — that is beautiful.”

And it didn’t happen by chance.

Mr. Shippy’s presence was the culmination of a decade of work by leaders of Warren H. Wilson Vocational Junior College and Associated Schools, created in 1942 from the merger and expansion of two high schools run by the Presbyterian Church.

Arthur Bannerman, born in Africa to Presbyterian missionaries, was named the school’s new president. With new Dean Henry Jensen, he opened the school’s doors to a variety of outsiders, starting with two Japanese-American girls from an internment camp in Arizona.

They were missionaries, says Warren Wilson graduate Marvin Lail, with a philosophy of “not just telling you, but showing you.”

Mr. Bannerman began writing to church-connected schools for blacks, seeking a student who might want to come to Warren Wilson. It wasn’t until the spring of 1952 that the men learned of Alma Shippy, a 17-year-old who had befriended some Warren Wilson students in local churches, where he helped teach Sunday school and Bible classes.

Mr. Lail, then 16 years old, was deputized to walk across the Swannanoa Valley to Buckeye Cove — “truly on the other side of the tracks” — where Mr. Shippy lived with his grandmother, Ludie White. He invited Mr. Shippy to speak at the campus evening prayer service.

Mr. Jensen watched Mr. Shippy’s brief address, and afterward joined Mr. Lail in asking whether he might like to attend Warren Wilson. Then, as now, students help with their expenses by working at the school. Mr. Shippy, who had no money for college, said yes.

“I think he was really taken aback that white men or peers — I was just a boy — would come and invite him to a white college,” Mr. Lail said.

There was a hurdle: The college had one dormitory for male students, and Mr. Shippy would have to live there. Mr. Jensen called a meeting of the 55 Sunderland Hall residents.

Mr. Jensen “was a very smart man and was a good speaker and [said], ‘We’re going to integrate the college, and we want it to be sooner rather than later, because it’s coming down the road, and everything will be integrated,’ ” Mr. Lail recalled.

Listening was Billy Edd Wheeler, about to start his final year at Warren Wilson. He was brilliant and athletic — a popular campus leader who later became an award-winning country music songwriter.

But he knew what it meant to be a misfit — born poor and illegitimate in a West Virginia coal camp and sent to Warren Wilson four years earlier to appease an unloving stepfather. The question of accepting this stranger struck at his heart.

“I had that ingrained in me that I could never be better than anybody else,” Mr. Wheeler said. “I think that was part of it, being able to empathize.”

The vote was 54-1 to accept Mr. Shippy. He began classes at Warren Wilson Junior College in the fall of 1952.

After the first few days, his presence drew little attention on campus that already housed students from China, Cuba, Europe and South America, Mr. Wheeler said.

By 1955, Warren Wilson had five black students and its first black graduate, Georgia Powell, who had earned her associate’s degree that spring. By then, Mr. Shippy was long gone; he left after one year to make some money for his family, his brother, Michael Shippy, said.

He joined the Army, then moved to Indiana, where he married and fathered two girls. Except for occasional correspondence with a few friends, Mr. Shippy vanished from Warren Wilson life until 1987.

Then, his marriage over, he returned to the Swannanoa Valley to care for his aging grandmother, going to work at a state-run long-term care facility. He again became active in his church and enthusiastically backed local youth sports teams, sitting behind the umpire at Little League games so he could cheer for both sides.

That’s where Rodney Lytle first encountered the stranger who had a silent but major impact on his life. A friend nudged him and pointed to Mr. Shippy. “He’s one of you,” she said.

Mr. Lytle was confused. He had two cousins who attended Warren Wilson in 1959 and knew blacks had gone there for years, well before it became a four-year college in 1967 and well before he met his wife there, earned his degree and got his job.

But he had never seen this older man or heard the name Alma Shippy. He walked over and struck up a conversation, “and from that moment on, we were friends.”

Mr. Lytle became Mr. Shippy’s champion, determined not only to commemorate his accomplishment, but to help him live a more comfortable life.

Though Warren Wilson had long required students to complete service projects to graduate, no one had done anything to help its first black student. A pair of students organized a crew to fix Mr. Shippy’s house. In 1994, the college included Mr. Shippy in the centennial celebration of its original farm school. And eight years later, on the 50th anniversary of his enrollment, the board of trustees passed a proclamation honoring Mr. Shippy and all those involved in the school’s integration.

In early December, his friends gathered once more, crowding into the college chapel for a memorial service, a few days after Mr. Shippy’s death at 72. They are determined that it will not be the last time the school marks his memory.

One former classmate has proposed a scholarship in Mr. Shippy’s name. Mr. Shippy’s family, Mr. Lytle and other college officials are discussing a permanent memorial — a marker, or perhaps a tree outside Sunderland Hall — for Mr. Shippy and all those who welcomed him into their lives, not because of a court order, but as a matter of fairness and faith.

“This group of people at Warren Wilson College was open-minded and willing to accept Alma not as a ‘colored’ guy, like they called us then,” Michael Shippy said. “They accepted him as a man.”

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