Fifty-five years last fall, local history was being made at what’s now the University of Memphis (then, Memphis State Uni versity). Barbara Mull, my mother, along with six of her peers – Sue Parham, Jackie Briggs (Sales), Shirley Hill (Jones), Billie Gayle Baker (Gholson), Velma Wallace (Jones) and Claudine Stansbury, crossed Delta Sigma Theta on their charter line.
There is a duality to this historic moment as they were also among the first and second waves of black students to enter and matriculate through MSU.
It was the early 60s, which was a turbulent time in the country, even more so in Memphis. It was a time when they would go to games and get popcorn and sodas chucked at them and when the white students would chant, “2-4-6-8 niggers go to Memphis State.”
After you let that marinate, think about the temerity these young women must have had to continue through school, graduate and – for most get – master’s degrees. It had to have taken nerves of steel to show up to campus everyday beneath a cloud of uncertainty and hostility.
Then you add chartering a Delta chapter and dealing with pledging old school style. It was none of this new stuff. Those who know, know.
Pledging is exhausting and somewhat stressful without the added layer of virulent racism from students, professors and administrators. We throw around the hashtag resist quite a bit but let’s remember the roots of this resistance and the generations before. It ain’t never easy to be the first anything.
I did not understand the magnitude of this until I was older, probably after I pledged. The amount of respect and deference sorors in Memphis have for my mother and her line sisters is always amazing. Whenever I meet a new soror, especially from the Epsilon Kappa chapter (U of M/MSU), and they realize who my mother is the reaction is “Ohhhhh wowwwww.”
I am very proud of my mother and of her line sisters. I have great respect for the woman she was and is. I can’t emphasize enough that it takes heart to be the first. Those seven women left an indelible mark in our city and left Memphis State a better place.