Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Education Experiences

BOND: Let me take you back a bit. You go to all black schools through your first master's degree until you enter law school.

CHAMBERS: Well, I went to Michigan prior to that.

BOND: Yes, you go to Michigan and then you return to North Carolina to go to law school. And what was that experience like? Some years — just a few years before you could not have done that. That was not tolerable in North Carolina.

CHAMBERS: Well, that's true. When I went to undergrad school in 1954 I could not go to Chapel Hill. They did not admit blacks. It was a great eye opener, though, to leave North Carolina Central and go to Michigan and see the advantages that white kids were experiencing with the resources that they had and opportunities. And to think about what black people would be able to do had they had those kinds of resources. Which is another thing that really encouraged me to get more involved in the civil rights struggle.

BOND: You might have gone to law school in Michigan, in Indiana, and in any of the other northern, western, mid-western states where blacks routinely went to law school. Why come back to North Carolina?

CHAMBERS: Well, I couldn't normally go to the University of Michigan. In fact, at the time Michigan was accepting one black a year.

BOND: Oh, really?

CHAMBERS: And a friend of mine was selected.

BOND: So he took your space.

CHAMBERS: She did. She took that quota. And so I was told then by Michigan that I ought to look at Howard or North Carolina Central. Anyway, we not only had discrimination in the South, we had it in the North, as well.

BOND: Indeed. I didn't realize it was quite so rigid that late. So you go to North Carolina and how many black students are there in the law school?

CHAMBERS: At Chapel Hill?

BOND: At Chapel Hill.

CHAMBERS: Then there were about eight. They had admitted their first group of black students. I think about four or five. And I think about three went in with me, and there were one or two others there. So about eight black students there at the time.

BOND: And what was the atmosphere?

CHAMBERS: It was quite interesting. The dean called me in when I first got there and advised me that if I wanted to do well at law school, I should not talk to any white women and that I should not go to any of the dances of the law school. And I didn't talk to any white women and I didn't go to any of the dances at the law school. So, I got through fine.

BOND: What did you make of this advice?

CHAMBERS: It's kind of surprising because I knew that although they had admitted a few black students, they were still very much a law school of the South and pretty much segregated. But for the dean to call me in to tell me that, I thought it quite blatant and wondered what would happen if I went to court and talked about the advice that I got. And I thought later about the problems that were involved in Sweatt v. Painter where the court talked about the need for a student to be able to partake of all of the attributes of an institution. Fortunately I got through law school and didn't have to worry that much about it.

BOND: But he also advised you not only not to talk to white women and not to go to dances, but not to get involved in the protests, which are swirling around both North Carolina and the whole South then. Do you think that in retrospect this advice was well meaning and kindly disposed towards you, even though it was — it had to be a little off putting? Do you think he —

CHAMBERS: I think that knowing the dean, that it was well meaning. And I admired the dean, who was Henry Brandis. And I think that he really meant the advice to be helpful and I didn't take it as an affront, so — and it worked well. So, again, for me, the process of opening up opportunities for all people is one that cuts across racial lines.