The Collegiate Life of Laura Marie Leary Elliott
Laura Marie Leary Elliott was the first African American student at East Carolina College in 1963. Her enrollment was the result of both internal and external forces that pushed for integration in higher education. During her sophomore year, Elliott moved into Ragsdale Hall on campus after living with family. Although she admittedly experienced little to no outright racist tension, her roommate requested a transfer after discovering she was African American. She would go on to receive her four-year degree in Business Administration. Laura Marie Leary Elliott is celebrated as a beacon for integration for African American students at East Carolina.
Backstory and Context
By the 1960s, the discussion of desegregation at ECC was reaching its peak, with the rise in the Civil Rights movement. Dr. Leo Jenkins was in a particular bind: Brown v. Board of Education (1964) called for desegregation across the United States, but North Carolina enacted legislation to stall integration. Dr. Jenkins rationalized that in order to facilitate proper integration, they needed a student that could handle the challenge of college. That student was going to be Laura Marie Leary Elliott, whether she wanted it or not.1
Few examples exist of those who were made martyrs for the sake of change, but Laura Marie Leary Elliott is one of them. Born in Vanceboro, North Carolina, Elliott was a gifted student on her own. At 17 years, old she graduated valedictorian from Pitt County Training School in Calico, North Carolina and then presumably applied for admission to East Carolina College. By her own admittance, she knew nothing of the decision behind her admission into ECC. Luckily, she unknowingly had a guardian angel inside the system working for her: Dr. Andrew Best. Dr. Best was an African American family practitioner in Greenville and a major community leader in Greenville. It was he who convinced Dr. Jenkins to allow Laura Marie Leary Elliott to attend ECC and even gave a personal voucher for abilities. She even described him taking a supportive role during her time at East Carolina.2
As the entire process of her enrollment was largely handled by her parents and Dr. Best, it is not surprising that she did not even understand the gravity of her role. In most of her recollections, she found herself dislocated from other students, and often lonely and isolated.3 Mostly this was caused by the still overwhelming racism that existed on campus during this time. In the 1963 edition of the Buccaneer, the year book for East Carolina University, during Formal Rush week the Gamma Beta sorority was dressed out in black-face and banjos. It is unsurprising then that Laura Marie Leary Elliot did not appear in the school yearbook until her sophomore year in 1964.4Although she claims that she never experienced any blatant racism or harassment, one event expresses the true nature of her existence on campus. At some point during her college career (presumably sophomore year), Elliott moved into Ragsdale Hall. Upon moving in, her roommate immediately requested a transfer of rooms (although unstated, one can assume it was race-related). As if the alienation and isolation were not enough, Elliott remained in that dorm room alone, because no one else would room with her. As time passed and as more students were integrated, Elliott would become somewhat of a leadership figure for those new students. Eventually she would go on to get her degree in business administration and work for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington.5
2. "The face of change". January 29, 2013. Records of Laura Marie Leary Elliott. UA70.05. University Archives, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC., 2.
4. East Carolina College, Buccaneer 1963 Yearbook. (Greenville, NC: Graduating Class of 1963, 1963). North Carolina University Archives, pg. 379
East Carolina College, Buccaneer 1964 Yearbook. (Greenville, NC: Graduating Class of 1964, 1964). North Carolina University Archives, pg. 419.
5. "The face of change". January 29, 2013. Records of Laura Marie Leary Elliott. UA70.05. University Archives, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC., 2-3.