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One of the First Six Black Women Students at Virginia Tech : Dr. LaVerne (Freddie) Hairston Higgins Dr. LaVerne (Freddie) Hairston Higgins

Date of interview:September 28, 2000
Location: Sound Booth, Media Building, Virginia Tech
Interviewee: Dr. LaVerne (Freddie) Hairston Higgins
Interviewer: Tamara Kennelly
Transcriber: Susan Fleming Cook

Part Two

Kennelly: If you could take yourself back to when you first came over. Did your parents take you over?

Higgins: Oh yes. They brought me over.

Kennelly: Can you remember any of your first impressions when you came?

Higgins: It was very pretty. We lived at Hillcrest Hall. I don t know if it's still here.

Kennelly: Yes.

Higgins: Okay. Well I understand it became a jock dorm. It was a very nice dorm. It may still be a very nice dorm. The furniture in the commons room downstairs was very nice. The rooms were very large, much larger than I expected, and I think there was a bathroom between two rooms. That was really physically nice, and the guys in the cafeteria were great 'cause the first November I was here, right after I came, I played touch football right out on the quad with a whole bunch of friends from the dorm and some guys and stuff-got my teeth knocked out and had to have them wired back in.

I still remember there was this dentist on campus, and he was leaving, and it was two minutes before he left the office, but they got me over there, and he shoved them back in and wired them in.

The reason I brought that up is because the guys over in Hillcrest made some food for me so I could eat because I couldn't use them [teeth] to bite anything. It was really nice of them, nice to have that 'cause my diet was really bad there for a couple months while the teeth mended.

Kennelly: Do you think they were looking after you because these were black cooks in the dorm?

Higgins: Yes. I remember this guy named Charlie. "What do you need honey?" There wouldn't be mashed potatoes, but I'd have mashed potatoes. I couldn't bite anything.

Kennelly: So they were kind of looking after you?

Higgins: Yes.

Kennelly: How were the girls in the dorm?

Higgins: For the most part they were good. Some of them were a little strange when their parents were around because their parents were much more concerned that we were around. There were people that didn't want anything to do with us, Linda and I. Linda and I were the only two blacks in that dorm. Everybody else was down in Eggleston, the black students.

Kennelly: I think Linda mentioned that sometimes the parents would treat you and her almost as if you were housekeeping staff, saying like, where were the paper towels.

Higgins: It was very interesting because Linda's reaction and my reaction were very different. Because mine was why the hell should I notice? She was much more offended personally. I was like that's your problem. So that's a little different.

I loved Linda. Linda's a great woman. But I suppose she was much shyer than I was. At the time I didn't think of myself as not being shy. I always thought I was kind of quiet. As I think back and think maybe I wasn't as quiet as I thought I was. She was just more likely to be hurt.

Kennelly: She thought you were more cosmopolitan. I was wondering maybe coming out of Roanoke, which isn't terribly cosmopolitan. But maybe would that be because of New York and your family being active in a certain sense?

Higgins: Yes, and I would do things in New York. I remember going to plays and doing stuff in New York. Stuff I didn't have a chance to do in Roanoke. Going to concerts with my cousins. My cousins are two years and seven years older than I am. Particularly my cousin Emma who is two years older then me. We were good buddies. Maybe it did change my outlook on life.

Kennelly: You were exposed to a lot of things before you even came to college? Well that might have made a big difference.

Higgins: I didn't feel intimidated.

Kennelly: Did you feel that some of your fellow students treated you like you were invisible?

Higgins: Possibly but I don't remember thinking very much about it because I also can be a very tunnel vision person. If it doesn't matter to me, I can ignore it. In some ways it's a good survival tool. It can make you oblivious to other things. I'm still a little bit that way.

Kennelly: What did you come here to study?

Higgins: Math

Kennelly: How did you find that department-the professors?

Higgins: Well, Linda found mentors in home economics and in chemistry. I remember a chemistry professor. But I didn't, and I do remember-I don't even remember his name, but I remember sitting in biology class and basically the first day him saying, "You people won't pass this class," and he was looking at me. I remember thinking it was useless, and why waste my energy.

I didn't feel strongly pulled one way or the other. I was politically more active, so I felt three schisms that made me disconnect here. It eventually led to leaving. The year we came, I think we counted up at one point, a whole bunch of us, there were forty-two blacks on campus. That's counting the ones from Africa, which I remembered, outnumbered the ones from the United States, males and females.

Kennelly: Interesting!

Higgins: There were only 350 females out of 12,000 students, and I was definitely anti-military. The Corps was really strong. I was like how can you do this? This is politically the wrong place to be. That's the group as time went on. I was real active in opposing Vietnam.

Kennelly: In what way were you active?

Higgins: Demonstrations, writing articles. I wrote for the student newspaper, but I also wrote for Alice, which was an underground newspaper.

Kennelly: Oh, you wrote for Alice too! I'll have to find those because we have Alice

Higgins: Oh, you do!

Kennelly: And you wrote under your own name in those?

Higgins: Yes.

Kennelly: Okay, I didn't realize that.

Higgins: Yes. So those were my friends. We were the fringe people. So in a lot of ways I was the different person in more ways than one way.

Kennelly: So did you go to some demonstrations against the war beyond things locally?

Higgins: In D.C.

Kennelly: Was it while you were in college?

Higgins: Yes, and after I left.

Kennelly: Would a busload of people go or a van?

Higgins: Or a car. I had a car to go to demonstrations. I can't remember. I went to someplace else. I think the person I remember most from here is B. Lloyd. He was the Episcopal minister on campus.

B. Lloyd, the Episcopal Minister

B. Lloyd, campus Episcopal minister, at LaVerne Hairston and Robert Clegg’s wedding ceremony

Kennelly: In what way?

Higgins: Because he was politically active and socially active. He did a lot of work with the Mineworkers in West Virginia. I remember that it was much more a kinship for me politically. And Tech United Ministries was a home away from home. That really was the shelter for most people who were the anti-war fringe people when I was here.

Kennelly: Through the church groups?

Higgins: Yes, so in a lot of places, the anti-war movement was around drugs, sex, violence, and all that stuff. Here it actually came out of the religious community. So it had a lot to do with ethics and faith and belief about how things should be.

Kennelly: Were you involved in one of the churches?

Higgins: Episcopal.

Kennelly: Episcopal Church here?

Higgins: Mostly,

Kennelly: Did he go to demonstrations?

Higgins: We talked a lot about politics. The Methodist guy I can't think of his name. There was an apartment above the theatre in town-Methodist and Presbyterian together, I think. They referred to it as The Apartment.

Kennelly: Above the Lyric?

Higgins: Yes. On Fridays and Saturdays we'd take turns cooking, and people would pay fifty cents to have a meal away from the dorm and listen to music and talk about political events and things like that going on. It was also a place to go and study off campus and sit and play cards. The minister-it was part of the ministry.

Kennelly: Were there other black students going to that besides yourself?

Higgins: Cecil Pettus from Covington. I think we were the only two.

Kennelly: Did you feel comfortable and accepted in that room? It just didn't matter?

Higgins: The most accepted that I felt.

Kennelly: In that group?

Higgins: Yes. Lot of discussions about issues and things. It was very politically centered.

Kennelly: Well, I wondered because you wrote that very interesting column, "Back Talk," which you were writing when you were on the news staff at the student newspaper, You and a white student, Larry Billion had this pro and con "Back Talk," and several issues were addressed-unions, Vietnam War, and miscegenation. I wondered. It was a very interesting series I thought, and I wondered how that happened.

Higgins: I'm not sure how it really got started. It was fun to do different perspectives. That was easy for me.

Kennelly: A lot of students come to college, and they haven't decided what their ideas are yet, but it seems like you had a sense of what you believed at that point.

Higgins: Yes, I think that I was encouraged at home to do that-to think about issues very young. We always discussed what was going on in the world. More on the weekends and Sundays than during the week because my father as a plasterer would often travel with construction jobs, and he would often go someplace late on Sunday night, or early on Sunday morning he'd leave and go off to a construction site. But he'd come home on Friday evening. So he was home on the weekends and gone during the week a lot of times.

Kennelly: When your father was home, he was the person who would give the discussion?

Higgins: Bring us up-to-date. It was also during the week. It was kind of crazy. Everything going on-going to school, working, things with the house.

Kennelly: In one of the "Back Talks"-it was called "The Pros and Cons of Mixed Dating and Miscegenation." You mentioned Dr. Samuel Proctor's, president of the Institute for Service to Education, emphasizing that the only way for a minority to infiltrate into the mainstream of society is through assimilation. You say amalgamation is a necessary step to progress. I wondered at this stage of your life if you had any reflections on assimilation for minorities?

Higgins: Assimilation/amalgamation. The way I meant it is very different than the way its come to mean. Assimilation has come to mean denial of who you are and taking on something else. Assimilation as I meant it and viewed it at the time was being able to function. And I think most minority peoples do that.

Mostly minority people function in more than one society. They are bicultural at minimum. Some are even more multicultural because there are cultural practices that are accepted in one venue, and even people do it across classes. People who change classes, who are born into a lower class and wind up moving into a different class, they become bicultural in a sense that they've learned to function in another. They've assimilated. That's what I mean by assimilation, not in terms of denial.

Now I think in the late 1970s, assimilation became synonymous with okay you're going to repaint yourself a different color and you're going to forget who you are. That's not what assimilation originally meant. It meant being able to function. To be part of the stream and not necessarily mixed in with it totally. I still believe that you have to be able to function in the main culture of society. If you want to change the main culture of the society, that's something different, but you need to understand it before you can function in it. I don't think you can do that by saying I'm this and you're that and never the two twain shall meet. There has to be someplace where there is understanding about what the differences are.

It's really interesting because I have had people say to me in the past that they thought I thought I was white. And I would say, "Why would I think that, look at me! You've got to be crazy."

I'm a stickler for my English, for the diction I use. Just to give you an example. This is really funny. I remember the first year I was here there was a girl named Susan Cash, down the hall, redhead from D.C. area, and I remember she and I were walking somewhere, and two guys-black guys-walked towards us, and they said something. I didn't understand a word they said. She responded and talked to them. They looked aghast. The reason is they were speaking street slang. I had never heard street slang. I was eighteen years old. I'd never really been exposed to street slang. But she had where she grew up in suburban D.C. She was used to it. She went to an integrated high school. She knew a lot of people who used slang all the time, and it was one of those cases where she was better assimilated into that part of black culture than I was. It didn't mean she thought she was black.

And that's what I meant by assimilation being really important. You've got to understand. But, you know, there are things I don't understand. I don't understand what its like to be brought up urban poor in this country and black. I have no knowledge of that. I don't believe my family was very rich. I'm sure there were times when we were poor when I was a kid. But psychologically we were never poor. So we were never on public assistance so I don't have a clue what that does to you. I don't have that experience. That's an alien experience to me.

Kennelly: Were you kind of protected growing up do you think? Were there street gangs?

Higgins: I don't remember street gangs.

Kennelly: So it wasn't like your parents were protecting you from what was there? It was just that wasn't the world in which you were moving?

Higgins: I have a friend who is white and grew up in Warren, Ohio. It's funny because Tom and I have this big chuckle because our lives are in some ways very parallel. He talks about his high school, and I looked at him like my God. I mean he graduated from high school in 1968, so he is a little younger than I am, but he talks about cutting from high school and going drinking and the gang fights, and I'm going, "What planet are you on?" Basically, we were in high school at the same time, but we were in two different worlds. His is much more stereotypical of what people think about as having been the experience of black people in school than mine is, and he's Irish American on both sides.

Kennelly: So kids drinking and all that wasn't part of your experience?

Higgins: I knew kids who drank, but you know it wasn't like getting in fights and weapons. He talks about weapons and kids bringing guns to school in the sixties. I'm just flabbergasted.

Kennelly: It wasn't like that in the schools you went to?

Higgins: No. You know, I went to schools where people all said, "No, sir," and "Yes, sir," and "Yes, ma'm," and "No, ma'm." Ones where you thought the teachers cared if you got something or learned something. They were there to help you, and that was real important. I felt that all the way back at school. Even though I was a little bit of a snot then.

Kennelly: You were what?

Higgins: I was a little bit of a snot then. [laughter]

Kennelly: Who said that to you that you thought you were white? Were those black people saying that to you or white people?

Higgins: Black people saying that to me, but I think some whites thought it.

Kennelly: I wondered if there was resentment in the black community here especially because there were so few women. I guess there was one young black man hanging out with this group over above the Lyric, but, if there was resentment because you were moving into a white community, dating a white boy?

Higgins: I don't think so. There might have been a couple people but not especially-not overwhelmingly at all. I got that more as I got older. I think people have found me-as I said, I've always been a little bit odd.

Kennelly: The Dean of Women Students at the time, Martha Harder, remembers students doing pranks in the dorms like putting "white" and "colored"-some of the black woman students were doing that on the water fountains. Were you involved with any of that?

Higgins: No. I would have never have done that because it would have appalled me that someone would do that.

Kennelly: Do you recall anyone doing that?

Higgins: They may have because I was only here two years.

Kennelly: Were you and Larry Billion friends?

Higgins: Yes, but not close.

Kennelly: Do you think he ever got convinced by your arguments?

Higgins: I don't know. I'm not sure he was always convinced by his own either. [laughter]

Kennelly: Was there much feedback on those columns?

Higgins: Yes, there was. I think that was the reason why I was willing to do them, and I think he was willing to do them-I guess I really can't speak for him, but at the time I remember thinking these are things people don't really talk about, and we need to talk about them. They're out there. At least we can get people to talk about them.

Kennelly: It was remarkable I mean the topic of miscegenation to have...

Higgins: Well in 1967? I think it was illegal until 1960. The mid-sixties it was illegal. Interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia until sometime in the sixties. I'm sure that came out of that.

Kennelly: Back to that column that you wrote-another quote. You say "involvement with someone who is different takes more than just a desire to experience something new." You dated and then married Robert Clegg, a fellow student at Virginia Tech, and I wonder if that involvement was difficult because of the difference in race?

Robert Clegg

Robert Clegg

Higgins: Not really. Difference in background mostly. Other people were more concerned about the difference in race than we were. As again I'd say I don't know. I don't care what your problem is, that's your hang up. We were married about seven years.

Wedding Picture Wedding Picture

Robert Clegg and LaVerne Hairston at the ceremony before their official marriage

Kennelly: So that was a while. What about your families?

Higgins: Oh my family was very upset.

Kennelly: Your family was?

Higgins: Yes. At first. No I think because I dropped out of school and got married. So it's like it's sort of hard to sort out what was going on. I think what brought us together was our political and social beliefs and our ethical beliefs. That's what brought us together.

Kennelly: Was he in that group of students?

Higgins: Yes.

Kennelly: Was that how you met him in the first place?

Higgins: Through friends and activities--through Tech United Ministries.

Kennelly: Because there is an image in the newspaper, the student newspaper of him at a demonstration when Dr. King died.

Higgins: Actually that's the wrong person.

Kennelly: Oh, the wrong person is identified!

Higgins: You can't see his face.

Kennelly: Oh that's not him!

Higgins: Well, he's in the picture, but he is identified as the wrong person,

Kennelly: Were you involved in that demonstration?

Higgins: No, and the reason is I'll tell you. I remember the night. That's actually what led me to leave Tech. End of side 1 Begin side 2

Higgins: Actually a bunch of us went to the apartment above the Lyric, and we were talking about what had happened and stuff, and I still remember a guy. I don't remember his name; it's really bad. He was a black cadet who came over because kids were celebrating in the dorms. I felt like I couldn't deal with this anymore. I needed to get out.

Kennelly: What about during the time that you were a student? There was also the whole thing where they used to bring the Confederate flag before football games. Some of the students were involved in that.

Higgins: I didn't go to football games. Yes, I remember protesting that, but I also didn't go to football games.

Kennelly: Because of that?

Higgins: Oh yes.

Kennelly: Because it was so offensive? The playing of "Dixie"? One of the other women students has mentioned how the playing of "Dixie" was very upsetting. Was that upsetting for you too?

Higgins: Yes, but not to the same extent because I saw it as a futile attempt to hold on to something that had been gone a long time and needed to be gone. But you can't move forward unless you can't forget about the past, but you can't just keep holding on to it. You got go-keep going forward. "Dixie" could be and should be just an old song but isn't because of the baggage that goes with it. The baggage that goes with it is because of what people attach to it-not just a song about a time that used to be but about how we want to keep those things, and that's what got in the way of the song. The whole controversy in South Carolina now has to do with the feeling that this is a symbol of oppression, and the oppression continues, and maybe we have to get rid of the symbols before we can start talking about getting rid of the baggage and start changes in people's behavior.

Kennelly: Were the other black women students interested in getting actively involved in the same way you were?

Higgins: I don't think they were as radical as I was in some ways. I was really multi-cause, because I was really very upset about our involvement in Vietnam and very involved in the anti-war movement. I still remember being appalled at the conditions of miners.

Kennelly: The coal miners?

Higgins: Oh yes and issues around responsibilities for black lung disease. Those were all issues I saw interwoven for me. You couldn't separate civil rights from oppression of the poor and the working class, and you couldn't separate that from what was happening in terms of international conflict. It all went together in my mind. It still does.

Kennelly: One of the other students, Marguerite Harper who is now Scott was involved in the Human Rights Committee, and they did things like had a date which she said in effect was a test date where a boy would come and call her. There were problems for him to even come to the door and ask the person down at the desk for her to come out. Did you get involved in any of those kinds of things? I think you were a member of the Human Rights Committee.

Higgins: I might have been.

Kennelly: I mean you're listed down

Higgins: That was a long time ago. I think so because I do know that Bob came to the dorm for me. It was always kind of weird. That was after I moved down to Eggleston, and I think in some ways they didn't pay attention or people didn't react as much to me because they saw me with a lot of different people. People I went to high school with. I don't know. I do remember that though. I do remember that very much. They would go on nice dates. I would always wear my jeans. I was really very hippie. So l think a lot of time people would think I was more casual, and I really do think I was an oddball. I was just really weird.

Kennelly: When he came to have you go out was it uncomfortable?

Higgins: I just thought that was their problem. As I said, maybe that's an advantage and maybe not an advantage. I felt a lot of that at the time. In some ways I thought, you know, "Get over it people." People would stare. People would stare a lot. I would smile back.

Kennelly: When you were out together?

Higgins: Yes.

Feddie Hairston Hanging with Her Husband

Robert Clegg and LaVerne Hairston with a friend in Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.

Kennelly: Were there any unpleasant incidences? Any overt...

Higgins: It's too hard to remember. The most unpleasant didn't happen here.

Kennelly: What was that?

Higgins: That was actually after we left, and it was in Washington, D.C. A policeman drew a gun. We were standing in a park. That was really scary.

Kennelly: He drew his gun? Why?

Higgins: We were sitting in a park watching a sunset, and he drew his gun. He looked at me, and I was a black woman sitting with four white people-1969-and I looked at this guy, and he said, "What are you doing here?!" I said, "We're watching the sunset." One of the other people we were with, older, said, "What's the problem, officer?" He looks at them, "You know this person?!" We're standing together! You know that overshadowed everything else, in terms of memories of racial incidences. That was really scary. Someone could have died.

Kennelly: Oh my gosh! Terrible! Really upsetting!

Higgins: Yes.

Kennelly: Did you have children, you and Bob? Because one of the comments you made in "Back Talk" I wondered about... You said, "The children of interracial marriage are the only victims of miscegenation. This is solely because of the hypocrisy and cruelty of man." I wonder if you would comment on that statement.

Higgins: I think that is less of an issue now. I have two children now with my present husband. I married a Minnesotean.

Kennelly: A Minnesotean?

Higgins: Yes. I moved to Minnesota. Actually Bob and I moved to Minnesota, and he is still there. I met a Minnesotean after we were divorced, and we have two sons.

Kennelly: Your second husband is white as well?

Feddie Hairston Second family

LaVerne husband with her husband and their two sons

Higgins: Yes, and we have two sons. If anything they are much better adjusted than any of us. We made a real conscious effort with them. The daycare they originally went to had a variety of kids from all different areas, and they went to a school in Minnesota where the kids were from Indian, Native American and South Asian, Chinese, Japanese, Irish, German, Swedish, everything-black, everything in the school. Lots of different religions in the school. We tried to expose them to a variety.

Kennelly: When you see your children, are there painful incidences for them because of race? Are they just able to freely move?

Higgins: That's interesting because my oldest son last year was telling me-he said there was a fight at school that some people said was racially motivated. It was between some Asians and some blacks. He came home and said, "Those are the kids that like to fight. Both sides!" It didn't have anything to do with that [race.] He played in the band. There are whites and Asians. He moves back and forth between all sorts of groups, and so does his brother.

Kennelly: As far as dancing or going with black or white or Asian, it wouldn't matter as far as who they were hanging out with or who they might take to a dance?

Higgins: More has to do with behavior, conduct, and values than anything else as far as I'm concerned and as far as their dad's concerned. That they have friends with high moral standards and high behavior standards; that's much more important. I do know they have lots of different friends.

Kennelly: How old are your sons now?

Higgins: They're going to be sixteen and eighteen in a couple of months.

Kennelly: I've seen some pictures of you in dance dresses. It looks like you were going to school here. Were you going with Robert, or were you going with a black student?

Higgins: I think that was before that; I don't think that was then. I think that was before I met him. I think it was freshmen year, and I can't remember where who I went with. My God, that's terrible, and he was in the Corps of Cadets too.

Kennelly: Did you feel comfortable at the dances and enjoy them?

Higgins: Okay. I just wasn't very into that anyway. But I decided to do it. I thought it was important to show up. To be a part of the community. There was so few of us we needed to. I honestly believe that there was a sense that not only do we have to do what we need to do for ourselves but so that the doors don't slam shut. So people don't have excuses to continue things the way they used to be. So there were things I did-much more formal stuff than I ordinarily have.

Kennelly: Was the Groove Phi Groove house going then?

Higgins: The?

Kennelly: Groove Phi Groove. The men had a social fraternity.

Higgins: No.

Kennelly: I think maybe that was a couple of years later when they established that. When you were in math, were you a minority as far as being a woman too?

Higgins: Both. I remember the first math class. I walked into the class, and I was the only female and the only person who wasn't white. There weren't even any Asian students in there. That was calculus class. I remember that.

Kennelly: So did that feel strange?

Higgins: You know in some ways it didn't feel strange because the two years in high school a lot of times I would be the only black in class. There were six blacks in my high school graduating class.

Kennelly: So very small?

Higgins: Very small out of about 400 students.

Kennelly: You kind of had been through that whole thing of feeling...

Higgins: That's what I meant in saying I feel different than everyone else because I didn't have a lot of that shock that they hadn't had. They were experiencing it. I had already been there.

Kennelly: Were you bussed to a school or was that the school closest to where you were living?

Higgins: Yes, Fleming was the school closest to where I lived.

Kennelly: So it just happened that the neighborhood you were living in the high school was mostly white?

Higgins: It was transitional when we moved in. Right now I think that neighborhood is probably all black. But when I moved in there it was not during my high school years

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