They just named a building after Levern Hamlin Allen at Western Carolina University.
The native Roanoker is not a wealthy donor to the college. She’s not on their list of notable alumni.
The woman who gave her name to a $48 million, 614-bed residence hall is not even a beloved former faculty member.
Allen is but a humble, retired Washington, D.C., special education teacher who spent a total of six weeks as a student at WCU one summer in 1957.
But the Lucy Addison High School graduate happened to be the one to break the color barrier at the college at a time — just three years after the landmark Supreme Court decision desegregating public schools — when resistance to integrating just about anything in the South remained virulent, if not violent. She was likely one of the first black students at any public North Carolina college.
In that, she joins a remarkable list of African American trailblazers who hold diplomas from the segregation-era Addison.
Allen had an easier time than most.
“Absolutely nothing happened,” Allen, 84, said this week from her home in Maryland. “The fact that I went through there and there wasn’t a brick thrown and the n-word wasn’t called out, it was a non-story.”
Yet Allen’s brief presence on the Cullowhee, North Carolina, campus was enough to puncture forever the white wall at what was then Western Carolina College. Though Allen’s association with the university was fleeting and more or less forgotten for decades after, since the 1980s WCU has more than once lauded her for being their accidental pioneer.
The dedication of Allen Hall follows an honor from the campus Ebony Club, an invitation to serve on the university’s board of trustees — which she did for two terms — and an honorary doctorate.
Allen accepts it all graciously, and yet with a sense that she didn’t really try to do anything important when she applied to the college 52 years ago.
“It’s was just a summer session, nine [credit] hours,” she said. Just enough to earn her certification in North Carolina as a special education teacher since she was already working with kids in Charlotte who had speech defects.
A young, single Levern Hamlin had graduated from Hampton Institute the year before, and was in search of a quick way to earn a teaching certification in North Carolina, a state that was new to her.
Eventually she wrote to the state board of education to ask for recommendations. They wrote back with a list, one that included all schools in the state with the courses she needed without regard for whether they were integrated.
“I knew I couldn’t go to many of them, but at least they were there on the list,” Allen said.
Western Carolina College, carved out of a wooded, mountainous section of the state southwest of Asheville, had everything she needed in one summer session.
“I wrote them, they vetted me and I went up there,” Allen said. “There was no fanfare. It was not, ‘Hey we’re going to do this.’” She now knows her acceptance came by vote of the trustees, something she suspects wasn’t required for most applicants.
The college clearly knew she was black. Allen suspected she was the first black student there. But the school, even in the heightened tensions of the civil rights era in the South, was possessed of a progressive spirit when it came to race. Allen said that’s still the case at WCU, where African Americans now make up 6% of the nearly 12,000 undergraduate and graduate students on the campus, according to the university’s 2018 demographic profile. Racial and ethnic minorities combine to make 21 percent of the student body.
“They were just genuine people,” Allen said. “They were willing to take a chance. We each took a chance.”
She arrived as a slender, conservatively dressed young woman, her hair straightened and coiffed.
The campus embraced her, but not in the most overt ways.
“They did their work. They made sure I was going to be safe,” Allen said. “I was treated like any other student … that’s all I wanted.”
Photos from the era show Allen in seemingly controlled or posed scenarios, looking at a book in the library, talking with a professor, sharing a soda in a diner with three white girls.
Yet there were signs that those all around her were quite aware of her and the college’s experiment. One day she went into town to the bank for the first time. The teller greeted her by name.
“That’s when it dawned on me: everybody around here knows who I am,” Allen recalled. “That didn’t make me be less careful.”
After six weeks, it was over. Allen went on to earn two more master’s degrees at the University of Maryland and George Washington University, and her time at WCC was rarely thought about unless she was filling out an application that brought it to mind.
Family members knew she’d broke the school’s color barrier , but it wasn’t much discussed, Allen said.
That changed in 1987 when members of the Ebony Club decided to host an African American alumni reunion at the college, and went in search of the name of the first black student there.
They found Allen, invited her to the reunion, which led to her appointment to the trustees, the honorary doctorate and now the dedication of Allen Hall.
Last September, Allen said, university officials called and said, “We want to talk to you about naming a building for you, but we need your permission.”
“I thought, ‘Whoa, we’re still going here.’ ” But what could she do but grant it?
She’s a highly educated woman and an accomplished educator, but this is heady stuff for a woman who grew up at 27 Gilmer Ave. N.W. in Roanoke’s Gainsboro neighborhood, the youngest daughter of a railroad janitor and a domestic worker.
Yet she joins a list of alumni from Lucy Addison High School with similar pioneering achievements to their names.
They include Edward R. Dudley Jr., the nation’s first black ambassador; Edward King Jr., a 1957 graduate who at 21 was secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and an organizer the Freedom Rides to integrate bus terminals in Alabama and Mississippi; William Robertson, the first black person on a Virginia governor’s executive staff, named by Linwood Holton to be assistant for minority and consumer affairs; and four Tuskegee airmen, the storied and decorated black World War II pilots.
An Addison education prepared students for the tough challenges in the wider, whiter world, Allen said.
“I was pushed to do things I probably would not have done or experienced. I had some of the best teachers I probably could ever have had,” she said. “They prepared us for life … I guess they knew, they were it for so many of us.”
Nothing quite prepared Allen for the dedication earlier this month of the building bearing her name.“My portrait hangs in the dorm, and that’s like, oh wow,” she said. “You open the door, and there I am, looking you square in the face.”