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First Black Woman in the Corps of Cadets: Cheryl Butler McDonald Cheryl Butler McDonald

Date of interview: 28 November 1998
Location of interview: sound booth, Media Building at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va
Interviewer: Tamara Kennelly
Transcriber: Stacie Swain

Part Three

[Tape 2, side 1]

McDonald: I think it did that to a lot people, particularly the women because we had the extra pressure of being new and different in the Corps, and you either stood that pressure or got out, and a lot of us stood the pressure, and I think we are better people because of it. We are a lot stronger Ôcause you are challenged academically if you're a civilian. In the Corps we were challenged academically, mentally. I placed more physical challenges on myself by doing track and stuff, but just the mental toughness you develop by being in the Corps and learning to deal with different pressures. Pressures you wouldn't feel on the outside makes you a stronger person.

Kennelly: Do you think integration of women into the units would've been more effective if it had happened from the start?

McDonald: We talked about it and it probably would've made the whole process easier, the acceptance of us into the Corps a little easier, but I think the way we did it was better. L Squadron we got to form our identity and establish the fact that women really could be a legitimate part of the Corps, and we got to do it our way. We got the respect and their trust and it made it easier when the integration finally did happen when they put the women into the individual units for the women that were coming along, because it could've failed just like the women at VMI and the Citadel it could've been the exact same thing.

Kennelly: So you would say in the long run the integration of women in the Corps into the units was good, but it....

McDonald: It was a gradual thing, and it needed to be a step thing. The Highty Tighties were the "first integrated part of the Corps," the first integrated unit because they put women in the Highty Tighties first. They lived in the L Squadron area, but they were physically assigned to the Highty Tighties schedule. They didn't follow the L Squadron schedule, but they stayed in our area, and the girls started out in the L Squadron. We had very few women that went right into the Highty Tighties when they first came in. And that was tough on them because they were staying away from their unit even though they were assigned to do the same stuff. Still they weren't involved in all the unit functions, and that was bad. If they were going to integrate them, they really needed to physically put them with the unit so that way they could really feel a part of the unit.

Kennelly: So they felt in between?

McDonald: Yes, because they couldn't participate in everything the Highty Tighties did. There are things you do inside the squadron area or the company area that you have to be there for, and the Highty Tighties had their rituals and stuff and would do different things. And the girls weren't ______ to all that stuff, because they weren't physically present with them. They couldn't be there because they had to be in our dorm. It's like once they decide to integrate them they really should've physically severed us as opposed to doing it gradually that way. I'm glad to see that they have the women physically in the same squadron and company areas. I guess they're all companies now in the same company area as the guys Ôcause that's the only way they are going feel a part of the unit. But I wish Marilyn were here cause she was one of the Highty Tighties, and she could've talked about how difficult it was for her to be a part of one squadron but being physically separated from them.

Kennelly: I wonder if that made it harder for her in the L Squadron because she would miss things out with you....

McDonald: I think we were more supportive because we knew her and she was our friend, and they were our friends, and we realized that they had stuff to do, but they were still always going be a part of L Squadron. But it was a lot tougher on them because they have different loyalties now. You're loyal to your buds, your unit, and your Corps, kind of in that order. Just because your buds are who you went through your freshman year with in your unit, and you just shared things, and everyone did it as a group, and each company and each squadron had different variations on that rat system. It wasn't a uniform system throughout the Corps. Everybody had their own little wrinkle how they handled their rats, and that was an experience that bonded that freshmen class, and so your first allegiance was always to your buds, then to your unit, and then to the Corps, because you always bond closest with the people that you're closest to.

Kennelly: And that never affected the whole system?

McDonald: Yes, and plus the fact that there was such a sharp difference being a freshman and being an upperclassman. We had rules against it. You would get demerits if a freshman girl went out with an upperclassman.

Kennelly: They weren't allowed to do that?

McDonald: Definitely not at all. And I remember the first month until they came down with that rule it was kind of lax, and they allowed that to happen, and then they bumped that rule down, and it was kind of hard to enforce because people had already started to form relationships, and all of a sudden they were told no you cannot see this person because of rank. It was the same way in the military. You don't have fraternization between officer and enlisted, not officially on paper because it's bad for discipline. Because how do you tell someone you have a personal relationship with you have to die, if you've got to give the order to go out and kill someone or go and be killed. How do you tell a subordinate that when you are physically or personally involved with them? And it was an issue when the services were all male and the Corps were all male, and when they brought the females in that just added an extra totally different dimension because now you have the gender attraction as well as the fact as you have a difference in rank. It was tough trying to enforce that. It really was. And the whole time I was there, there was not fraternization between upper and lower class.

Kennelly: Is that when the person is a sophomore.....

McDonald: Once they're a sophomore, they were upper-class. But freshmen were not allowed to fraternize with upper-class.

Kennelly: Being in the Corps does that make you feel depersonalized as an individual because you become part of a unit?

McDonald: No, not really. Everybody had their different personalities, and you liked a person based upon their personality not based upon the fact that they were part of a group although certain personalities tended to stick together Ôcause you did have people who moved back and forth between companies and squadrons. They didn't stay in the same unit all the time. That was rare, but you did have that. I don't know; you just tended to look at the individual. You didn't like a whole company based upon one person's personality; you just liked the individual. Unless the whole mindset of that particular unit was a lot different, or you didn't like, but you didn't just say you didn't like that company because you didn't like that one person, or you didn't like that squadron because you didn't like that person. You just didn't like the individual.

Kennelly: Is there anything else you.....

McDonald: I don't think so....

Kennelly: If you would just talk a little more about the racial issues.

McDonald: I have never viewed myself in terms of race, maybe because I was brought up in an integrated environment. I always viewed myself as a female opposed to being a black female, and the fact that I was the first black female in the Corps didn't mean anything to me. It was more of the fact that I was among one of the first female women in the Corps. That was more important to me. Race has never been that much of an issue for me. Growing up I had always gone to integrated schools, part of them were in the military, and plus the fact that my father was in the military, and the military being more integrated than American society as a whole back then that probably has a lot to do with my outlook and the fact that we were taught to judge people not on the basis of their color but on the basis of their ability, and sex had no play on it either. It's like if you can do the job, it doesn't matter whether youÕre male or female, black or white, just as long as you are able to do whatever task you are assigned or whatever job you take on to do yourself. And I've always looked at the fact that I am a woman and the fact that I want to do something that women traditionally don't do. It never occurred to me that race would be an issue because it wasn't an issue with me. I know I'm black. That's something I can't change. I know I'm female and that's something I can't change, but I think there are more barriers to the fact that I'm female and keeping me from doing things I want to do than the fact that I'm black, and being able to do the things I want to do.

Kennelly: In your family growing up, was there any emphasis placed on being black, or your role as a black person in your family or community?

McDonald: No, not really because all the neighborhoods my parents grew up in were black, and all of my grandparents lived in black neighborhoods, and most of their friends and our friends at the time were black, if they were non-military. And outside of my immediate family a lot of my friends were black, and my relatives dealt primarily with blacks as opposed to whites just because of the way the culture was, but we didn't place a lot of emphasis on race. We didn't place a lot of emphasis on trying to do things better than other people because we were black. We were trying to set an example for blacks. That wasn't anything our parents tried to teach us. It's you're an individual first, and the fact that you are black might make it harder in some cases. I really admire my mom a lot. My mom, her thing was the fact that there were a lot of things she didn't get a chance to do because she was female, and she was really pleased that I went into the military because I was doing something she wasn't able to do back then cause her career choices were even more limited then mine when I came out in Ô76. The black issue had been a lot more settled than the male female issue, because the issue with Martin Luther King and stuff happened back in the late sixties and early seventies. Then the women's issues started coming more to the fore in the early seventies to late seventies, and there were some issues that were black and white. The females were now feeling in power to start sticking up for their rights, and I felt that the race issue had been settled in my mind long before the gender issue had ever been settled.

Kennelly: So when you grew up did you have black and white friends as a kid?

McDonald: Yes, it didn't matter to us if they were black or white. All that mattered was how good of a playmate they were, how good their house was, who made the best snacks, who had the best toys. That was a primary concern, not whether this person was white or black, or Hispanic or Asian. It was the fact that their stuff was better than mine, and which ever family had the best stuff, that's where all the kids congregated. I remember when we were in New Mexico, my mom put out the best snacks, so we always had kids over at the house, and other places other people had better games so we were always over at someone else's house. It wasn't the fact that person was white or black. It was that person had something we wanted to do. Everyone treated each other as equal. It wasn't a race thing for the kids growing up in the military, not on base anyhow. It wasn't an issue. Our parents all worked together. We lived in the same area. The only segregation that was going on was officer and enlisted like I talked about earlier. There was a difference between an officerÕs house and an enlisted house. They lived in different sections of the base. They used the same common facilities like the grocery store called the commissary, or the PX which is kind of like a Wal-Mart, and the gym. But housing was separate, the clubs are separate. There is an officer club, and an enlisted club. There was no joint club back then. Now the military in some places is going to an all ranks club. But that was where the segregation was, was between officer and enlisted not between black and white, or non-white and white.

Kennelly: Was there something particular your mother wanted to do?

McDonald: Well she wanted to go to college. Her father got real sick her first year so she had to drop out, and she never went back. She got married when she was 18 or 19, and started having children, so she just wished she could've gone out and done a lot more things before she got married and started having kids, you know have a chance at a career. She became a house wife, and until my youngest brother was in elementary school, which meant I was in junior high school, she didn't have anything outside of the home. We were a pretty traditional family. The father was the bread winner, and the mother was the homemaker, and she stayed at home with the kids. So she always wished for a job, and once the kids got old enough, she started getting outside jobs.

Kennelly: When you were growing up in high school, were things mixed around such as parties and all of that, or was it black and white?

McDonald: It all depended. Sometimes we went to parties where it was predominately black, particularly on the parentsÕ side. On the kidsÕ side, whoever had a party and we were allowed to go, we weren't allowed to go to a lot of parties. As long as our parents approved of the kids, we could go. It didn't matter if they were black or white.

Kennelly: Your family was not as strict then?

McDonald: In some regards they were kind of strict. I didn't really start dating until I was a senior in high school. They were protective, and I was a little shy, so I didn't go out of my way to be all that sociable. I don't remember going to that many school parties and dances until I got to my senior year. It wasn't something that interested me Ôcause I ran track in high school, and I was more interested in the athletic side of the social scene at school as opposed to going to the dances and stuff and academically I was in the honors program. That was, my focus was academics and sports. It wasn't on the social life that much, so when people went to parties and dances, and they would go out drinking, I didn't really do that cause that wasn't really what I wanted to do. And my brothers were real heavily into sports, and my dad coached their basketball teams and their softball teams and football teams, and we would always go out and watch the games. We were more oriented that way as opposed to going out and partying, and then our family is really close, so we did a lot of socializing among ourselves. We went out as a family as opposed to the kids going their separate ways with their friends at night and going to parties and stuff and the parents going their separate ways. Again, it was just a matter of who your friends were at that certain time, and it wasn't based upon the fact that they were black or that they were white so much. It was based upon the fact that you knew them, and you liked them, and they liked you.

Kennelly: Do you think a lot of that is from being in the military?

McDonald: I know it is because if my parents didn't go into the military they would have probably still been in a predominately black neighborhood, and I would've experienced the same pace of integration as the rest of America did. The people that weren't in the military, I went to one junior high the first year they integrated blacks into that junior high, and that was a little tough because we had been on a military assignment before that, and I was used to going to military schools where it was all integrated, and then to come back and you are being stared at because you are one of the first blacks to get there. It's like well okay why are you guys doing this? Yes, my skin may be a different color, but I still have brains. When I bleed it's still red. I can read. I can write. What's the difference? Skin color shouldn't be a reason to not like somebody, and that was interesting. I wasn't used to that type of environment, and after the first few months it got better Ôcause people were used to seeing us.

Kennelly: Where was this?

McDonald: In Norfolk.

Kennelly: Were there any complications in that?

McDonald: It was more you had to walk the gauntlet. People would stop and stare at you, particularly the first day. There weren't any police or anything. The teachers were out, and the principal was out, and they made sure we got into the classrooms and stuff. Nobody threw anything. There were a few remarks that were made but no riots or anything. It was relatively peaceful, but still it was traumatic for those going through it.

Kennelly: How many students were there?

McDonald: Maybe 40 or 50 of us.

Kennelly: Of a student body of how many?

McDonald: About 200.

Kennelly: That was a major change?

McDonald: Yes, it was.

Kennelly: Did you make any white friends at school there?

McDonald: Yes. Everybody is afraid of change, and even though kids are more accepting of new experiences than grown ups are they are still shaped by their environment, and they have a lot of fears, and they don't like change that much either. And that was a pretty drastic change, particularly when you are hearing it from all sides about how bad it is, but you don't know why. You are just being told it's bad. You haven't even been exposed to these people, and you are making an assumption not on fact but on hear say of what people are like. My first air force assignment I was in Duluth, Minnesota, and some of those people had never seen a black person in person in their life. It was amazing to have people come up and touch your skin, especially kids to see if it would rub off. I met one woman who was 24 years old who was a school teacher up there, and I was the first black person she had ever talked to and seen in person. She'd seen us on TV.

Kennelly: Did you feel sort of lonely?

McDonald: I felt like I was an alien. You would go to a restaurant, and people would just stare at you. Not in a negative way. It was just like you were an entirely different creature. And at the time I had the kid come up, we were in a car place, and I was getting my car worked on, and he was sitting with his dad, and he was about 12 feet away from me, and he would keep looking at me, and then he would come out two or three feet from his dad, and then run back to his dad if I looked at him, and every time he went out he came closer and closer until finally he reached out and touched me. And I said, ÒIt doesn't rub off.Ó And he was about four or five years old, and he ran back to his dad, and his dad is trying to apologize, and I said, ÒHey, if you've never seen one of us before, we don't bite. It was different. It wasn't a negative thing. It was just a weird thing because I didn't know there were people in the states that had never seen someone of a different race.

Kennelly: You were the only black person there?

McDonald: No there were plenty of blacks at the base, but this was in the downtown area, and that part of the country is predominately Scandinavian, Swedish, that type of background, and I guess they don't go any place. I don't know. A lot of them hadn't seen that many blacks. The farther you are away from the big cities the harder the chance they would have to be exposed to us. It wasn't a negative or unpleasant experience; it was just different. It was amazing you get looked at like that.

Kennelly: And you just coped with it?

McDonald: You just kind of laughed it off because there wasn't any harm in it you were exposing them to something new even though you didn't feel new. I felt I was exposing them to something different. The Northeast is an entirely different part of the country. They act differently. They talk differently. Their manners are a lot different than here in the South. You go out West; it's even different still. I would like every American to have that opportunity to go and see the different cultures in the state because they may be a lot more tolerant of the differences in people if they got exposed to them and realized that they are not bad things they are just different.

Kennelly: Any other thoughts?

McDonald: No, I just think my growing up shaped me and my opinions of myself.

Kennelly: Thank you.

McDonald: You're welcome.

[End of interview]


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