Wesleyan’s First Five from left to right: Sonya Tomlinson Holland, Marvette Baldwin Jenkins, Christine Everett, Dyleane Tolbert Taylor, and Carolyn McClinton Woodard
“For these women, every ordinary act of campus life demanded a kind of bravery that simply will never be required of most of us. They understood that they were part of something much bigger than their individual circumstances. They made it work and paved the way for others to follow.”
From remarks by President Ruth Knox ‘75
at Fall Convocation 2012 honoring the First Five
on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of their graduation
Since graduation, Carolyn McClinton Woodard ’72 had passed by Wesleyan College a countless number of times, but in the thirty-seven years never really returned to campus. This past February, she and two classmates returned with mixed emotions.
“When I pulled in, I thought about that very first day when my family pulled in with me freshman year. All of those feelings – of not wanting to be at Wesleyan, some anger, some frustration – came back to me,” she said. “I realized that I avoided returning to campus because I didn’t want to experience those feelings. [Returning helped] me process those feelings and put in perspective what occurred while I was here and what has helped to shape and mold me as an individual.”
In August of 1968, five courageous women integrated Wesleyan College: Carolyn McClinton Woodard, Dyleane Taylor, Christine Everett, Marvette Renee Baldwin Jenkins, and Sonya Tomlinson Holland. Joining the Wesleyan student body during the late 60s meant facing many challenges, according to Dyleane Taylor. She experienced a difficult first semester on campus but knew the significance of staying. “I knew I could not leave,” she remembered. “I had to graduate from Wesleyan and open that door.”
Carolyn Woodard also had a difficult transition. “I had no intention of going to an all-white school,” she said. “Initially, I felt coming to Wesleyan was not my choice. It was a decision made under duress and I felt I would sabotage the whole process. That first semester, I told my mother I was unhappy and wanted to move to another school. She was very supportive, but there was something in my mother’s eyes that showed me at the time that this was bigger than me. This wasn’t about me; this was about change and moving forward – integration, all of that. That’s when I realized I needed to make this work.”
Carolyn, Dyleane, Christine, Marvette, and Sonya persevered and on February 28, 2009, three of the five pioneers returned to campus and enjoyed a full day of fan fare. Wesleyan formally honored its first five African American graduates at a special Black History Month Celebration & Gospel Concert themed “Honoring the Past & Blazing Trails to the Future.”
The graduates, along with current students and many distinguished community leaders, participated in a March of Honor and then were honored by several artists and performers through song, dance, prayer, poetry recitation, and cultural traditions including lighting of the Kinara and pouring of libations ceremonies. The day-long event paid tribute to the experience of these five Wesleyan alumnae and celebrated May 21, 1972, the day they were conferred with bachelor’s degrees.
“We are so very proud to honor the five Wesleyan Pioneers whose courage, talent, grace, and personalities enabled Wesleyan to move forward as a community during the turbulent 60s and early 70s with relative calm,” said Wesleyan President Ruth Knox during the celebration. “I was a wide-eyed freshman in the fall of 1971 when these five were seniors, yet I had no idea that they had been the first African Americans to enroll at Wesleyan. Their presence was perfectly natural – because of who they were and are. And now, of course, Wesleyan has one of the most diverse student bodies in the country and that is one of our greatest treasures.”
This article ran in the Wesleyan Magazine, Summer 2009 issue.
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