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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 Three

Kennelly: I wondered how you felt being chosen as papermate of the week?

Higgins: Okay. [laughter] Embarrassed. Well embarrassed and saying this is good at the same time.

Kennelly: Well it did seem a step.

Higgins: On a personal level, embarrassed. However, on a political, social consciousness levels great.

Kennelly: Was the newspaper staff fairly open to things?

Higgins: Oh yes, I had a good time with the newspaper staff.

Kennelly: I didn't ask you, but who did you room with your second year?

Higgins: You would ask me that.

Kennelly: Was it a black student?

Higgins: No. I have to remember. I'm getting years confused.

Kennelly: Because you were with Linda at first.

Higgins: Yes.

Kennelly: Well that's okay. If it comes to you, you can mention it. You mentioned the drill field as one of your pet peeves as well as the food at Owens.

Higgins: Oh it was awful. [laughter]

Kennelly: Was it because of the military presence? Was that why it was a pet peeve?

Higgins: Oh yes! There were times you couldn't cross it because you'd have to walk all the way around because they were having military exercises. I kept going, "Is this really core to college education?" I think if I remember right it was sometime in the sixties before Tech stopped being an official military. It was an official U. S. military academy for a long time into the sixties. And so that carried with it, do we really need to train people to fight? And that was a philosophical mission. Is violence core to education?

Kennelly: Pardon me?

Higgins: Is violence core to education. And that's why it was a pet peeve. But the food in Owens was God-awful! Ohhh! I couldn't believe it. [laughter].

Kennelly: I think Dr. Hahn had some forums at the time. I think some of the issues that were dealt with were racial issues. There might have been other issues as well. Did you attend any of the forums?

Higgins: Yes, I did. And I also remember walking down the hill in my freshman year from Hillcrest with him a couple of times and talking to him as we walked down the hill.

Kennelly: Personally talking to him?

Higgins: Yes.

Kennelly: Can you elaborate on that?

Higgins: About things that were going on campus and how the campus environment was.

Kennelly: Was he interested in what you had to say?

Higgins: Yes. I remember thinking at the time-I wondered if he's really interested, or if he is politically motivated. But anyway...

Kennelly: But he listened anyway?

Higgins: Yes.

Kennelly: Did you think he was trying to make things welcoming?

Higgins: Yes. I thought he had a really strong, hard job to do so-to change the culture.

Kennelly: Can you say a little more about that?

Higgins: Because not only was it the fact that there were blacks on campus, but there were women on campus in significant numbers for the first time. I think there'd never been. 1966 was the first year there were really women on campus. The women before that-it was my understanding-had often been wives of male students, or daughters or some relatives of people connected with the institution but not really women on campus just primarily without another connection. That was a major cultural change too. It was a major time of transition. Well, VT when I came here, it really was engineering and agriculture, home ec. The arts school and the business school were fledging. So it was a major transition to make it more full because it wasn't Virginia Tech and State University. That came later.

Kennelly: Did you say you got a partial scholarship when you came here?

Higgins: Yes, from the Ford Foundation.

Kennelly: But your parents also had to pay for part of it too?

Higgins: Yes, it wasn't very much because it wasn't very expensive.

Kennelly: One of the students said you had a hippie wedding when you were here.

Higgins: Yes. [laughter]

Kennelly: So those were your activist friends and your other friends in the community?

Higgins: Yes.

Kennelly: That might be kind of fun to see those. Were there things that bothered you or disappointed you when you came to Tech?

Higgins: Yeah. I had two really great years in high school, and in some ways I thought that Tech was much more oppressive. My two years at Fleming were much more liberating. So I felt more strangulated in terms of ideas. It was a more conservative school, and that was really hard for me, and I think in some ways this was really the place I encountered racism more inadvertently than any place else in my life up to that point-on a day-to-day basis.

Kennelly: In what way?

Higgins: In classrooms and stuff, people who really didn't want to be near you. People who overtly would move away.

Kennelly: They would move away?

Higgins: Yes or if you were in class you would see professors look at you in sort of exasperation. "What are you doing here?" The unspoken question would be that more so than anything else would. That was it.

Kennelly: Even if you had the attitude that's their problem, it would still be painful to go through that on a day-to-day basis.

Higgins: Oh sure. In a sense of that's your problem. It doesn't mean what I mean by that Its not that you are not aware of what's going on, and it doesn't have an impact on you. It's just that you're not going to let it impede you. Their problem isn't going to become my problem in the sense that I'm not going to let this person's narrow-mindedness change what I need to do and what I'm doing. Instead of being devastated you get mad and more determined. [laughter]

Kennelly: Did you feel excluded from any experiences that the normal Virginia Tech student would have at that time?

Higgins: Probably, but I m not sure I wanted to be included. Yeah, but it took me a while to find my community. When I found my community, I was fine with my community.

Kennelly: The group you found through church?

Higgins: Yes.

Kennelly: Were there any experiences as far as being in Blacksburg as a town-not as much as a university?

Higgins: Going to the Episcopal Church in town was very interesting [laughter]. I don't think they had ever seen a black Episcopalian before. So that was very interesting. I do remember there was a Greek restaurant that use to be right at the end of College Street, and that was actually a great place. We use to go there, a bunch of us, and eat. That was sort of a second home in some ways after the Apartment. We would go there and eat a lot and talk, and you could sit there over a cup of coffee, and the people were really nice. I remember that restaurant. I don't remember the name.

Kennelly: It might have been called Greeks.

Higgins: Okay, Greeks. Salads and French fries. I lived on salads and French fries.

Kennelly: You decided to leave pretty much that April.

Higgins: I actually didn't leave right away

Kennelly: But that was a turning point?

Higgins: Yes.

Kennelly: Did you get married before you left?

Higgins: No, right after.

Kennelly: Your husband, what year was he?

Higgins: A junior, no, a senior.

Kennelly: Was he graduated then?

Higgins: No, he didn't then, but we both went back a year and a half later...not here but in Minnesota. We went to a friend's wedding. She got married to another friend of ours

Kennelly: It gets complicated. [laughter]

Higgins: Yes, it gets very complicated in Minnesota, and we went to her wedding. We both wound up going to University of Minnesota.

Kennelly: To continue your education?

Higgins: We both got an undergraduate degree there. Later after we split up, I got my M.B.A. there and later did my doctorate in Oregon.

Kennelly: So did you go from Blacksburg to-where did you go first?

Higgins: Maryland, suburban D.C.

Kennelly: D.C.? Did you work there a while?

Higgins: For about nine months.

Kennelly: What did you do?

Higgins: I worked for International Group Plans. I remember it was an insurance management company. I remember we did-that's what I did most of the time I was an administrative assistant, and what the company did was one of the clients was the Retired Officer's Association. I always thought this was a kick. The Retired Officer's Association would say we want to offer our members discounted health insurance or discounted auto insurance. They'd hire our company who would tailor the policy to their needs and then find an underwriter and then do all the administrative stuff. So I did that for a while.

Kennelly: It was military in a way?

Higgins: There were other clients, but that was a real big one. Before that I worked a lot of temp jobs and stuff before I found a permanent job. He taught in a school for retarded children, and we did that for awhile before we went to Minnesota. He was a CO, a conscientious objector. I think he may still be the only one to come out of his draft board in eastern Ohio. While we were at the wedding, his father called because he had gotten a letter telling him to report the Monday after the wedding for alternative service in Ohio. We got on the phone to the selective service in St. Paul and said we can t possibly get back to Ohio in less than twenty-four hours. He got a placement in Minnesota, so we ended up staying there. Actually I always tell people, I went to Minnesota for a wedding and left twenty-two years later. [laughter] So I have spent most of my life there, near St. Paul.

Kennelly: Did he end up getting drafted?

Dr. Laverne Hairston First Husband

Robert Clegg

Higgins: No he did alternative service. It was a call to service. He worked in a mental hospital.

Kennelly: Was he a Friend or a Quaker, or was he an Episcopalian?

Higgins: Yes, Episcopalian.

Kennelly: So they accepted him as a conscientious objector. How did you find-you ended up going to University of Minnesota-how did you find the climate there as compared to the climate here? It was three years later.

Higgins: Totally different. I started there in February 1970. Totally different. It's really interesting because I would say the percentage of black students in Minnesota is very low. Minnesota as a state is 90 percent white, but it was a large international student, a large campus. When I was there, there were 45,000 students. It was just-if you could think about it, you could study it. I loved Minnesota a lot. I had a very good experience there. I wound up-it took me longer to graduate because I couldn't make up my mind what to do. I didn't want to be a mathematician anymore, and I sampled all sorts of things.

Kennelly: What did you?

Higgins: I have an undergraduate degree in child psychology. I went to the Institute of Child Development in Minnesota. Then I got a Master's, an M.B.A. I ran a children's mental health agency in Minneapolis for a while, working a lot with developmentally delayed children. I did the business side and worked with two psychologists. It did a lot of the treatment, with the psychologist as consultations, for children who had developmental delay, parents who had to relearn parenting skills. From birth to 14 was the age range--after school programs, before school programs. I did a lot of fundraisers, a lot of that stuff. That was very early in my present marriage when my kids were little. I quit that. I tried to be a stay at home mom and failed miserably. I lasted six weeks. [laughter.] I figure it was to my kid's advantage that they go to the day care center. They had a lot more things to do. It was a lot better for them. They had a lot more stable environment. I was a much nicer person. I could talk to adults. I went to work part-time at the University of Minnesota for a guy named Travis Thompson who was a child psychologist who was in the process of trying to establish a developmental disability center at the University of Minnesota. Actually we eventually got it off the ground. I helped him get that off the ground, helping with the administrative side of that. That was really a lot of fun. I did that for two years and in the process decided I really wanted to go back and get my doctorate. At one point right after my M.B.A., I worked for the dean of the Business School in Minnesota at the time when it doubled in size and started to gain some national prestige, and I had sat on some scholarship committees. One of the things that I remember hearing a lot was from both women and minority students. You'd meet a student who had exceptional abilities, and you'd try to encourage them to continue their education. A lot of them would say, "Where would I get a job, anyone who looks like me?" So I said, what the hell, I really like going to school. My favorite thing in the world is to read. If you're a professor you get paid to read. I also thought if I could do that, I could be a role model to tell people that it is possible. You don't have to come from generations back to be an academic. You can be black, you can be female, you can be in an area where there aren't many of either. You can do that and do it well. At the same time do something I really like to do. That's when I decided. I talked to my husband, and we moved out to Oregon because I wanted a particular program.

Kennelly: So you moved essentially because of what you wanted to do?

Higgins: To do my doctorate. So we spent five years in Oregon for me to do my doctorate.

Kennelly: What did you do your doctorate on?

Higgins: International human resources.

Dr. Laverne Hairston getting hair Doctorate

LaVerne Higgins receiving her Ph.D. in 1994 at the University of Oregon

Kennelly: What was your husband doing at the time?

Higgins: He worked most of the time for Lane County in Oregon, where he worked in I.T. area. He's an electrical engineer. I like to tell him he was in computer science before it had a name. [laughter]

Kennelly: Information Technology you mean when you say I.T.?

Higgins: Yes.

Kennelly: Did he get his doctorate too?

Higgins: No

Kennelly: But he has his master's?

Higgins: No, not interested in going to school. I was thinking about all the classes he's taken. I mean he has his degree in terms of continuing education and all the certification and conference stuff. He's done the equivalent of a couple of master's. But he's not interested in sitting down formally for it.

Kennelly: Where were you in Oregon?

Higgins: Eugene, University of Oregon.

Kennelly: Afterwards what did you decide?

Higgins: Then I looked for a job. Actually I had quite a few job offers when I graduated, and I decided to take the job in New York at the only Jesuit school that was founded coeducational. It was the opportunity to be in a community and a department that has commitment, political community that was aligned with me. It was also a community that I thought my children would be nurtured. We talked about that. I had job offers in Boston and other major cities, in California and stuff. We didn't think the climate was good to bring up kids. It just worked out well. Last year I went through the tenure process, and last year I became the first black woman to be tenured at my institution.

Kennelly: What is your actual title there?

Higgins: Associate professor

Kennelly: Of?

Higgins: Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management.

Kennelly: Okay.

Higgins: It's a separate department from the business department although I teach in the M.B.A. program too.

Kennelly: Did you find race made any difference for you as far as progressing there?

Higgins: I don't think so. I think it may have made some difference in the initial contact because the gentlemen who was chair of the department was very interested in someone different from he and his colleagues-male, white male either Jewish or Catholic; gotta get someone different. I think he was more committed to a female, but I think it was really interesting because when we met we really liked each other all of us. It's been a very good department to be in because it's one of the few academic departments where people like each other. We talk to each other outside, and department meetings are not a chore; it's a conversation. And I think that was another big deciding factor for me. Not only was it a community that we thought would be supportive of our children, a good environment to grow up in, but also the fact that I was really comfortable with these guys. And that I think in a way goes sort of back to Tech-I've always been very comfortable around a lot of men, so in a lot of cases coming to Tech for some people it was "an all-male school." You know, I wasn't thinking of it in terms as a lot of guys to date because I do know girls in the dorm who thought that when I came. But it was just like guys are fun guys, are interesting, and maybe that was because I was really interested-I was a kind of nerdy kid as a teenager-I was real interested in science and math.

Kennelly: In that sense of nerdy that you liked science and math?

Higgins: Yes, that's sort of my generation's stand of a nerd.

Kennelly: But it's interesting that you said you wanted to go to an all women's college and that was your first choice.

Higgins: Well that's because, and I think it still holds, that some of the most successful women in this country went to all female schools; [female] undergraduate schools provide a very nurturing environment.

Kennelly: You were aware of that?

Higgins: Oh, yes.

Kennelly: Which says something too. Do you find yourself acting as a mentor for students too?

Higgins: Oh yes, in surprising ways. The school I teach at is predominantly white and Catholic, but I find, and I didn't realize it so much-I remember after the first semester I taught at Oregon, the end of the semester quarter, a student came and knocked on the door. He was an older black man, not older than I was, but not traditional age. I remember him coming to me, and he said, "I really enjoyed the class." But the first day when I walked into class, he thought "Oh she must have been bringing some equipment into class." He told me I was the first black person he'd ever had as a teacher. (He was a junior in college.) Also he said I made him feel really good that I was teaching a class and that I did it professionally well. What that gave me was a sense of one of the roles I think is important. He also said that he was really glad to have his fellow students see me in that position. I find in my office now a lot of the students who I wind up mentoring are not just black students. They are often shy females. They are often Philipinos or Hispanic. They are students who don't see themselves. I am the closest they can come to seeing themselves. Although at my institution, there are more white female faculty members than there use to be. I remember there was an Asian graduate assistant who taught a class when I was here. But the first time I saw someone who was on tenure track who was a professor of color was a Japanese American professor of psychology in my doctoral program.

Kennelly: In your doctoral program? Wow, so that was the first person you had seen?

Higgins: I think my first female professor outside of the arts and sciences was actually my M.B.A. program.

Kennelly: All different steps.

Higgins: Yes, so I feel like I know I surprise people in a lot of ways. I got a teacher of the year award from some of my students a couple of years ago. So that really made me happy.

Kennelly: Really!

Higgins: I think at times I'm very demanding, and I emphasize some things that I don't think other people do, but I think I'm doing my job. I'm letting other people know that there are differences out there.

Kennelly: Now I can ask you about the Japan thing. Was that for your own personal research or consulting?

Higgins: My own personal research

Dr. Laverne Hairston First Husband

From the left: Tomoko Hori, Dr. Roger Gulbranson, Dr. Higgins inTokyo, June 2000

Kennelly: What is your own research?

Higgins: All the developed countries in the world are aging in population. All have a lower population birth growth rate than they did previously. All employment practices are geared toward the young. What do we do with that reality? The reality that there aren't as many young people as previously. There is a tightening labor market because people are retiring, and also a lot of the people retiring are of middle age. For example, what does that mean for employment practices for the Japanese and foreign firms operating in Japan? What are they doing in response to changing labor market issues? Demographics and labor market change, how are companies responding to it? What do they see? Are demographics the most important thing facing corporations regarding workforce issues? I'm also doing an American side to that. I'm traveling in the United States....

Kennelly: Yes, you mentioned that taking your son to see colleges but also traveling for your own research.

Higgins: I think I've got some interesting stuff from Japan. Actually I'm talking to someone about looking at the issues from Europe.

Kennelly: Looking at what?

Higgins: Talking to people in Europe. Looking at changing labor/workforce issues in Europe.

Kennelly: Do you ever come back over to Virginia Tech?

Higgins: No.

Kennelly: Have you been back since you left?

Higgins: Once in the seventies.

Kennelly: So you don't feel a connection here?

Higgins: No,

Kennelly: What do think are the greatest challenges or opportunities a university faces?

Higgins: I think it's a challenge society faces. This is a very political statement because [End of side 2] [Begin side 3]

Higgins: I think a change happened in this country in 1980, and I don't like it. The change that happened is divisiveness, and I would say even before that even in the sixties there were people on one side of the issue or the other side having to do with race relations or activities of the military or social issues, but I always felt like even though people may have disagreed, they seemed to have the interest of the country in mind. They may have disagreed on what was the best interest, but it was still there. I think beginning in 1980 we became a country that had "me" in mind. The whole idea of public good-there being something that you can contribute to that. You as an individual may not gain anything from, but as a society, we all gain-which in turn in the long run, maybe not as directly, was a great service. That seems to have disappeared, and that to me is really very terrible. I think that is something that will be our downfall unless we get some of it back because we can't have a bunch of "me, me, me's" running around with no idea that the government or individuals or groups of individuals have a responsibility to society. that we don't just go for our own personal interests. I think that's a terrible place we've gone. For me, I'm one of these people who really hated Richard Nixon as a president in terms of his politics and his stance on a lot of issues, but I still believe he was a man who thought what he did he did for his country-he still believed in the public good. I think that it's an economic concept I think we aren't even teaching to people anymore.

Kennelly: That's very interesting! Do you think it makes a difference that I m not a black interviewer? Do you think you would have been able to say more if I was black?

Higgins: Not to me!

Kennelly: Are there other things you'd like to bring up, like to mention?

Higgins: I think I was really lucky in the family I grew up in. I had a really solid footing, and I never experienced what I know other blacks and non-black women of my generation who felt that they had limitations put on them because of what they were biologically. I never felt that, and I owe that to my family. I think that is something that has really shaped my life a lot. I've tried real hard to give that to my kids too. I've tried to give it not only to my kids but also the kids I see in school. I call them kids because I'm old enough to call them kids now. But to the people I encounter that that is something they do. You know, those years in Minnesota I did a lot of work with United Way, women shelters, and stuff and that empowerment was one of the things I think that people need. There is a difference between freedom and license. Freedom is being empowered to believe in yourself and try. If you fail at one thing, to get up and try something else. We often talk about the freedom in this country to do anything you are able to do. Too many people confuse freedom and license. License means you can do exactly what you want to do. I don't believe in license. I believe in freedom, the opportunity. I think I saw the civil rights movement as opportunity, as opening doors and allowing people to have the freedom to try. And I still see it as there's a need for there to be places for that. People need the opportunity to give it their best, to give it a try. As long as it doesn't hurt or injure anyone else. That is a strong conviction I have.

Kennelly: Are you politically active now?

Higgins: Not really, not in the sense of a political party or anything like that. I mean it wasn't so in Minnesota, and one of the reasons I think I stayed in Minnesota so long was because Minnesota is a very hard state. I don't know if you've ever been there. [laughter] The only way for the Democratic Party to survive in Minnesota was to align itself with the Socialist. It has the only Democratic Farmer Labor party in the country. Okay and the Republican Party there is much more middle of the road than anyplace else. So politics there is much closer to the middle. I know that when I was here I was often seen as a radical, and I think in terms of what I find ironic about that is I always think my politics have been more moderate. But that was radical then, and it's even more radical now. Which is another thing I have a problem with.

Kennelly: What is more radical now?

Higgins: Being a person of moderation as opposed to an extremist.

Kennelly: To be a person of moderation instead of extremist?

Higgins: Everything is so the radical title fits me more today than it did thirty years ago.

Kennelly: In that kind of context?

Higgins: Yes.

Kennelly: In Minnesota-when you found things more repressive, were they more open there?

Higgins: Yes and it was very interesting because they were not without issues. The first apartment I moved in, in Minneapolis, I remember the parents of a friend telling me they didn't think it was a great neighborhood, and it was because it was four blocks from what eventually became the headquarters for the American Indian Movement. So those same kinds of issues were up there, but they were in a different context. And also I think because not only could you be politically active in those kinds of issues but it was a private arts community. Arts have always been very important to me. I like a lot of theatre, music. Music and theatre are very important. I like the "culture" and art a lot. That stuff is really there along with the social climate, so that's why I stayed for twenty years. Winters are terrible? Anything you've heard about the weather is not to be underestimated. [laughter]

Kennelly: Have you done much writing, journalism, or writing later on because in those "Backtalk" articles I wondered if you did any writing or published? Is that something you've pursued?

Higgins: No, no, academic stuff.

Kennelly: So I assume you've done research articles. Do you have a book out yet?

Higgins: No, not likely,

Kennelly: More articles and research type thing?

Higgins: I liked writing, but sometimes I did it and sometimes not. You know I wrote a lot of poetry, and I achieved that. I paint too.

Kennelly: I think you had a little comment you had in that Papermate thing that you enjoyed the architecture students when you were here. I wondered if that was because they were closer to the arts in a sense?

Higgins: Yes, a little dichotomy.

Kennelly: You have two sons now?

Higgins: Yes.

Kennelly: Is there anything else you wanted to add that I haven t asked you about that comes to your mind that you feel is important to mention?

Higgins: No, just that I think that I was the weird one,

Kennelly: Very diverse group. Somebody commented that all six of you brought here together and everyone expected you to be...

Higgins: We weren't.

Kennelly: Very different people. That's a small group. Of course there's all the other women students. Did you make any friendships with other women students that were lasting friendships?

Higgins: For a while. Most of my real lasting friendships came later in my life because I really did a lot of changing, and I dropped my first name. Anyone who met me in the last thirty years doesn't even know it's there. Even my passport hasn't got it. I'm La Verne and have been for a long time.

Kennelly: Was La Veme part of your original name?

Higgins: Yes, the passport people decided there wasn't any problem. So my passport, my social security card, my driver's license everything is F. La Verne Higgins. My professionally La Verne Hairston Higgins.

Kennelly: People here might forget. I want to explain while we're still on tape about these release forms. There are two of them. You have an option. What will happen is the tape will be transcribed, and there's one way of making it on paper. You can edit it if you wish. We ask people not to go overboard on editing. but if you felt something was a mistake we do like you to review it and also for names and stuff. This one will be signing this to allow us to make it available to researchers coming in to Special Collections or the university. The other release form is to make it available in the World Wide Web. We like to make it a separate one because that's just a different kind of level. You could either sign it now or if you'd like to wait when I send you the transcripts, I could send the form then.

Higgins: Send me the forms with the transcript. A lot easier.

[end of tape]




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