Interview with Harold Haizlip (Amherst ’57)

05/10/16

How would you summarize your experience at Dunbar High School in D.C.? At Amherst?

Outstanding…I was a serious student, almost an all A student for the whole time I was at Dunbar…I was very much involved in the activities of the school…I had a good relationship with the principal and the faculty members there…I had good circle of friends….a special experience.”

There was no question that they wanted and expected me to go to college. They were going the extra mile to ensure that I was ready for college, particularly interested and supportive, above and beyond the minimal requirements for teachers.”

What was your relationship like with other men from Dunbar who decided to attend Amherst College?
(For example: Atkinson ’56, Greene ’56, Hayes ’59, Burwell ’59, Jason ’59, Neal ’61)

“I interacted a great deal with Karl Atkinson, both members of Phi Psi fraternity, both from Washington, D.C. We had that history in common, we also liked each other…Larry Burwell….not terribly close but we we’re friends…I acknowledged him as a man who shared a high school history.”

 What specific factors encouraged you to attend Amherst College?
(For example: Amherst alumni, Dunbar teachers, Amherst College admission deans, etc.)

“Her name was Nora Gregory…[she] was Charles Drew’s sister. She was my 5th grade teacher in Washington D.C. I remained in touch with her. She said many times over that you need to go to Amherst College. One day, she called me to meet her at her home…I, of course went…she was very supportive of me…my father had died, I had a difficult time growing up, anything she asked me to do I always did…[There was a] very nice white gentlemen Eugene Wilson…he was the admission dean [of Amherst College]… I had been accepted at Harvard, Yale, Amherst, Williams, and Dartmouth…I knew I was going to college, I didn’t know which one. After that…I made my decision to go to Amherst. He was very honest with me…He could see whether he could help…I could not get a room for race reasons [for] my girlfriend at the time also from Dunbar, a class behind me (Class of 1958) stayed at Dean Wilson’s house for three or four days…That was 1953 I think.”

“He was especially warm and welcoming when recruiting but also after students had made a decision to attend Amherst. He called me in for meetings to discuss whatever was on my mind, whether I was having any problems or challenges, how my academic work was going…A wonderful man, I really liked him a great deal.”

“The admission officers were aware of the students that they were preparing for college…there he was at my fifth grade teacher’s house…the dean of admission! there was quite a history [of the Dunbar-Amherst connection]! I feel like I benefited from that history. There were reasons for the relationship [between Dunbar and Amherst]. There was a positive relationship. This was at a time when it was unusual for college administrators, and white college administrators, to be so aggressive…they knew they were only going to take two…so they went the extra mile to find the best two. I’m sure they knew Nora Gregory’s lineage. It was her son who became the first African-American astronaut, Frederick Gregory. He was a nephew of Charles Drew. His mother who was so instrumental in making sure that I was aware of Amherst and that you had applied for admission.”

How would you describe your experience as a black student at Amherst in the 1950s?

I liked Amherst a great deal. I liked the academic challenges of the courses I was taking. There were some courses such as the American Studies course that I particularly enjoyed. I became very involved with the Classics Department and became a Classics major ultimately….I was very active…I joined Phi Alpha Psi fraternity (the first fraternity to accept a Negro student and was thrown out of the organization for doing so)…I was very active [in the fraternity], I was elected president during my senior year. I was involved in a lot of activities. I enjoyed the madrigals group in our fraternity…We performed and competed as madrigal singers, I enjoyed that very much. I don’t recall any professor that I disliked. For me, the professorial staff at Amherst was a very positive experience. I became very close to the professors…”

I really loved Amherst. It was a great place for me. I was plunged in and I got involved…Dick Button was hired to teach figure skating for the first year of the skating rink’s operation, I’ve been figure skating ever since, I do still figure skate for recreation….”

At the time I was Amherst, there were only two Negro students for each class. There were never more than eight Negro students on campus at one time….It was a good thing and a bad thing for me. I developed relationships with all Negro students …I wanted to know who they were…some such as Greene and Burwell…our Dunbar connection was an opener for our relationship…We developed interests and associations that grew out of our shared experiences and interests at Amherst…I had a number of guys who became very close friends who were white…some I’m friendly with to this very day, fifty plus years later…My very best friend is a white guy who lives in South Salem, New York who I met my first day at Amherst…we were at each others weddings, he became engaged and got married…and I fell in love with a woman at Wellesley and we became a very close foursome…I used to go to South Salem…[During my time at Amherst] he and his parents invited me to their home if the holiday wasn’t long enough for me to go home to Washington…We became extremely close and we still are…We’ve had a life of the usual things…Everyone knows that we are extremely close and that was very unusual for a Negro student and a white student at that time…I recall going to a party with members of the Classics department in New York City…“You speak our english so well, what country are you from?”…I was out and about in the dean’s circle and all sorts of things….[and] active with my singing group….”

I was not blind that I was in a racist environment. It was 1953, 1954….while the law had changed, the people hadn’t, the institution hadn’t.Those things had to be addressed…the Negro students were always assigned to single rooms, somebody assumed that they couldn’t anticipate how the student would relate to other white students and vice verse. The solution was to put negro students in single rooms. When I arrived at Amherst, my room was 409 in Morrow Dorm. I’m a full scholarship student and it never occurred to me…I thought it was a luxury, a private room! Yeah, that’s great.

I had been active in all sorts of organizations at Dunbar…We had exchange visits from students at white schools…We had various activities and programs at government agencies…at the Pentagon for example and places like that…black and white students were brought together for purposes of an event…Being black or being white was not the purpose…They made sure to create a diverse audience of students…When I went to Amherst, I knew at least three or four white students from Washington, D.C. who were also going to Amherst. Charles Lofton was the principal of Dunbar when I was there…a very special, gregarious, astute, very intelligent, well-dressed, well-spoken, black man…a role model for us as students…he would often call several students to his office that would involve our integrating with students from other schools and he wanted us to participate and represent our school, we were the ambassadors for Dunbar…He arranged for events like that  for us to participate in….on the train to amherst, were two white guys who I knew.”