Patricia Oates Conway’s first college experience will remain with her always — positive memories of choir trips and friendships mixed with the scars of prejudice and isolation.
She enrolled at then-Campbell College in the fall of 1968 to study music, among the first three black students to desegregate the school in the late 60s (basketball star Cordell Wise was the first, coming to Campbell the previous year). However, she left Buies Creek for the bright lights of Baltimore in 1970 to, as she put it, find herself and start her life.
Forty-seven years later, Conway finished what she started. In May, she walked with a hop in her step across the stage at Campbell’s spring commencement ceremony to receive her long-awaited degree in communication studies. Her graduation closed an important chapter in Campbell’s history, providing a happy ending to a story that didn’t always have the happiest of moments.
Her first Campbell memory was in the summer of ’68, sitting outside of President Norman A. Wiggins’ office while her counselor from Sampson High School in Clinton, the Rev. Roger A. White (a Campbell grad), spoke to him about her enrollment. White walked out into the lobby where Conway sat, looked her in the eyes and said, “You’re a Campbell student.”
“Dr. Wiggins asked Rev. White what I had to offer Campbell, and his response was, ‘What can Campbell do for her?’” Conway recalls.
She did have something to offer Campbell — her voice. As a freshman, she joined the travelling choir and built strong friendships in the previously all-white group. Others on campus, however, weren’t as accepting. Conway recalls the first sting of the n-word from a fellow student as she walked to Marshbanks from her dorm to practice piano one afternoon. There was also the choir trip where she and a white male student were refused service at a restaurant in Raleigh because the waitress thought they were a couple.
“Those experiences … they changed my whole scope on things,” she says. “It happens enough times, it does something to you.”
The stress and the workload — difficult classes and a busy choir schedule — eventually became too much, and Conway left Campbell midway through her third year to move to Baltimore with her aunt and uncle. Work, marriage, children and a separation marked her 20 years in the city, and in the late 1980s, she returned home to be near family. All three of her children went to college, and as adults, they began to encourage their mother to return. But it took a chance meeting with the man who introduced her to Campbell the first time — the Rev. White — to seal the deal.
“I was working at Walmart at the time, and I felt a presence behind me. It was the Rev. Roger White,” she says. “We hadn’t seen each other in years, and not long after we exchanged pleasantries, he came out with, ‘When are you going back to Campbell?’ I answered, ‘Why? Am I supposed to?’ He said I needed to do it. ‘They owe you an education,’ he said.”
Earlier that year, Conway lost her oldest son, Gary, who was 35. Before his death, Gary had also encouraged her to return to school, saying she was going to write a book one day.
“I was standing at the edge of a cliff, looking over it, and there was no bottom,” Conway says. “I knew I had to take the leap, though. So I leapt. Four years later, I’m ready to run.”