My life at Spelman College in 1961 and 1962

Mollie F. Belt
Mollie F. Belt

 

By MOLLIE FINCH BELT

The Dallas Examiner

 

Upon graduating high school, my dream was to attend Spelman College. I thought it would be wonderful. Spelman College, Clark College, Morris Brown College, Morehouse College and Atlanta University – five Black colleges that were all in walking distance from each other.

My father did not want me to go to Spelman because he believed if you lived in the south you should go to a college in the north and vice versa. He felt strongly about the experience and total education of the person. So when I chose Spelman and my mother supported me in my decision he was very disappointed.

My best friend Betty and I went to Spelman together and were roommates.

There were five of us from Dallas who went to Spelman and Morehouse in September 1961. We traveled to Atlanta on the train. Leaving Dallas on the Texas and Pacific train to New Orleans and changing to the Southern train in New Orleans for a nonstop ride to Atlanta. Our parents went to the train station ticket office in downtown Dallas to purchase reserved tickets for the Southerner train, from New Orleans to Atlanta, so we had seats close together.

The Southerner was a streamline train that was integrated and you had to reserve your seats.

We did not realize the danger of Negroes traveling on a train through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The Civil Rights Movement was very active in these states at that time and it was not safe to be traveling in the Deep South. In May 1961, the Freedom Riders embarked on their trip to register Negroes to vote in the Deep South.

We left Dallas on Texas and Pacific Railroad in a segregated train to New Orleans. We rode in a coach designated for Negroes only. We left in the evening and rode all night through Louisiana to New Orleans. Fortunately, we did not have incidents on that trip. The train made stops in small towns en route and people had no problem getting on and off the train. However, we had to changed trains at one point to the Southerner, and because this train crossed the Mason Dixon Line it was not segregated. Still, if our seat was next to a White person, they would move to the dining car and stay there the entire trip rather than sit next to a Negro. So we definitely felt that White people did not want to be near us, but we felt safe because we were in a group.

Upon arrival in Atlanta, Spelman girls were met by a chaperone who took us to the campus. I will never forget the campus was surrounded by a black iron fence with three rows of barbed wire at the top.

I realize now that the Spelman rules were meant to protect us.

We could only go to the movie theatre in a group with an adult chaperone, even though it was only two blocks from the campus. We were always met at the train station by an adult chaperone who escorted us to the campus. We were not allowed to go downtown or into the city unless we were with upper class girls or our housemothers. Every dormitory had a “house mother” who was our mother away from home.

Atlanta was a Black city and had many things to do that Dallas did not have. Our parents had to sign written permission slips for us to leave the campus to go home during vacation breaks or to visit friends in other cities.

Students in Atlanta were very active in the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta.

Spelman girls could only participate in civil rights protests on days when we did not have classes, we were not allowed to skip class to protest. We would meet on the Morehouse campus where Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized the marches.

We were not fearful of what might happen to us. We were marching for a cause – the right for all Negroes to vote and be treated equally everywhere.

I had a friend from Dallas who attended Tuskegee Institute during this time and his mother forbade him from participating in civil rights protests. He asked his mother, “What am I going to tell my children, when they ask me what did I do during the Civil Rights Movement?” He marched in spite of his mother’s fears.

At Spelman we had to attend mandatory chapel three mornings a week. The dean and her staff stood in the balcony of Sisters Chapel and took attendance – we had assigned seats.

Speakers at chapel were excellent – always outstanding Blacks who had achieved much. One of our speakers was Howard Thurman, the first Black dean of Marsh Chapel at University of Boston. They motivated us to achieve and prepared us for the world outside of Spelman.

If we missed chapel we received demerits. We also received demerits for not making up our beds before we went to chapel, not being in our rooms during study time, not in our rooms after 10 p.m. After so many demerits you were punished – a privilege was taken away. For example, you could not receive company – which were men from Morehouse – during two hour visiting hours in the dorm living room at night. Each dormitory had a large living room where we “took company.” Your guest had to sign in and the housemother would send for you to come visit your guest. Freshman students were not allowed to date. You could have company during the visiting hours in the living room of the dormitory building. You were not prohibited from dating male students at the other colleges but you were definitely encouraged to date only Morehouse men.

There were no sororities on Spelman’s campus at that time. We were told that we were one sisterhood.

Spelman had an exchange program with Ivy League all girls’ colleges in the north. Girls in the exchange program – who were White – were treated differently. They had more freedoms. When the Dean was approached with this question, she said they were accustomed to a different lifestyle than us.

I did well academically at Spelman but I did not feel I would grow to be an independent person there.

My parents sheltered me at home and Spelman for me was a continuation of home.

 

Mollie Finch Belt is the publisher of The Dallas Examiner and the daughter of the newspaper’s founder. She can be reached through mbelt@dallasexaminer.com.

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