Gwendolyn Harrison: The First African-American Woman at UNC

When Gwendolyn Harrison was accepted to UNC-Chapel Hill to obtain a Ph.D. in Spanish, she didn’t have to mark her race on her application. It was only when she checked into her dorm room that the University realized they had admitted the first black woman by mistake. She was told by a university employee to leave, but that was not the last time the university would see Harrison.

Earlier in the summer term, UNC experienced a lawsuit from four black law students. A federal court ruled the University had to admit the students in 1951, just months before Harrison attempted to attend. Three years before Brown v. Board of Education, Harrison believed the lawsuit granted her student status, but the University was still struggling with the change.

In a letter to the editor, Harrison questioned why her situation as a graduate student was any different from those admitted to the law school.

“The trustees of the University have voted to admit qualified Negroes to the graduate school of that institution,” she wrote. “Why, then, was I accepted by the University and then refused permission to register upon my arrival on the campus?”

She appealed the University’s decision and was met with a cop-out answer. Chancellor Robert House told her that the decision had to be decided by the Board of Trustees at their June meeting. Instead of waiting for an inevitable no, she sued UNC with the help of an NAACP lawyer, C.O. Pearson.

The University decided to settle, and Harrison was officially admitted to UNC on July 16, 1951. She returned to the school the following year but decided not to finish her degree.

Harrison died in 2017 and rarely talked about her fight into UNC, according to her family in her obituary. Although her story is rarely told at UNC, Harrison paved the way for future black women to attend the university without systematic challenges. She was brave to call out UNC for its hypocritical policies but humble as she only mentioned it in passing.