William B. “Billy” Thompson and Carl McDonald were friends. It should have been that simple, but it wasn’t.
Thompson was black, and McDonald white, and, in the 1960s, friendships between the races were often seen as unusual.
“This was someone who was very special in my life,” said McDonald. “He was black, and I was white. At the time, it was not common, but it developed into a friendship that lasted 41 years.”
Maryville College honored Black History Month with a celebration of friendship, courage and the power of an individual to create change. Celebrations were held Feb. 22 in the Harold and Jean Lambert Recital Hall at the Clayton Center for the Arts.
The “Perspectives on Black History” featured McDonald and Freeman Wyche, who attended Maryville College in 1954 and spoke about his experiences as a student. Current student Le’Sean Brannon, a child development for teacher licensure major from Baltimore, Md., spoke about her time on campus, and the College’s gospel choir, Voices of Praise, performed.
McDonald and Thompson were 1963 graduates of the college, and McDonald shared the story of his friendship with classmate William B. “Billy” Thompson, one of few African-American students who was enrolled at the college in the early 1960s. Thompson dies in January, 2000.
Following the event, Maryville College president Dr. Gerald Gibson said he was pleased with the turnout. “It was very important for our students -- both black and white -- to hear a person who lived through this time,” he said. “I was very pleased with the turnout, and I’m very pleased to be part of it.”
Dr. Gibson’s wife, Rachel Gibson, said the Civil Rights era was a difficult era for the country. “I was in college when Dr, King was murdered, and it was a hard, hard time,” she said.
Thompson’s sister, Cora Thompson Goss, said when she and her brother and other siblings were growing up, they didn’t pay much attention to racism. As they got older, however, she said they began noticing white schools had more resources than schools for African-Americans.
“We didn’t get a lot of the tools. All we had was reading, math, P.E., some algebra and not a lot of chemistry,” she said.
The event was a joint effort of the college’s Stewardship Office, headed by Diana Canacaris, and the college’s Multicultural Affairs Department, headed by Larry Ervin.
Maryville College had African-American students enrolled as early as the late 1800s. However, a state law forced the college to become segregated until the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown vs. The Board of Education ruling, which allowed the college to return to its previous policy of enrolling qualified students regardless of race.
Canacaris said she feels the spirit of community and the progressive nature of Maryville College are aspects that the majority of students, alumni and faculty hold dear and are reasons why she wanted this year’s celebration to be a joint effort. Canacaris said she became acquainted with Freeman Wyche in 2008 during the Homecoming celebration, when he was honored at the Commitment to Integration ceremony and spoke during the college’s Wall of Fame induction ceremony.
“I was so moved by his words and powerful message, and I saw the emotion he evoked not only in the student-athletes but in the faculty, as well,” Canacaris said. “I knew then that our students must experience his memories of the past to gain wisdom that cannot be taught from a textbook.”