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4 of the 1st black professors retire after decades at UNCA

August 18, 2018

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Four friends sat chatting inside the home of newly retired professors Dolly and Dwight Mullen. Snacks of granola bars and nuts were shared and fresh coffee was poured while thunder and lightning cracked open the sky on Devonshire Road.

A baby rested in the room opposite the dining area, serving as a counterbalance to the historical memorabilia decorating the home from floor to ceiling — an aging poster of Aunt Jemima smiling with a container of syrup in her hands, statues from African countries and photos of family and former students.

The home cast a warm yellow glow that suggested many had passed through over the decades, both for family gatherings and maybe for more serious discussions on world events.

But now, Dolly, Dwight and their two closest friends, Charles and Deborah “Dee” James, also recently retired, met to reminisce and poke fun at one another.

“We are best friends, but really we are family,” said Dee, 67, whose smile came as naturally to her as her quick wit, which she is known for among her friends. “We were able to teach at the university for so long because we looked after each other and helped raise our children, and we tried to be a community.”

These four black professors from the UNC Asheville all retired this year after serving the students of Western North Carolina and beyond for 30 years.

Stories from students and colleagues reflect the enormous role they had in shaping the generations of young adults.

The Citizen Times spent an afternoon with Dwight, Dolly, Charles and Dee discussing their experiences as four of only a handful of black professors teaching at UNCA through the 1990s, their attempts to bridge the gap between students of color and white students and their hopes for UNCA as they say goodbye to what became their launching pad for educational revolution.

When Dee James was 12 and living in Charlotte, her school was just starting to desegregate and racial tension was at an all-time high. She says she will never forget the day her friend’s mother told her to look for the closest exit every time she entered an unfamiliar room.

“I was told that for the rest of her life I would have to represent my race as a black woman,” James said. “And that life would never, ever, be fair for someone like me.”

So, when she applied and was accepted to teach literature and writing in the English Department at UNCA at the age of 30, James wasn’t aware it was part of a statewide mandate that the UNC system hire more black professors.

This diversity push established in 1981 was a huge reason she and her husband were hired by the university in the summer of 1984.

A few months later, the Mullens followed, also recruited because of their skin color, Dwight Mullen said.

But they needed teaching jobs and UNCA needed them as well. That was in the summer and fall of 1984.

Dolly Mullen followed, and eventually took full-time work after spending her first few years as an adjunct professor.

But their transition was not easy, nor was it all positive.

James taught a variety of chemistry courses, like molecular spectroscopy, and humanities, and he remembers students writing very comfortably on their teacher evaluation forms that the school needed to “stop hiring just another n-word”.

Mullen taught political science, and he regularly received death threats. Sometimes students would check to make sure he made it home OK.

“I was part of the apartheid movement of ’88 and there were also klans in Madison County who knew my name,” he said. “I would come in to work and find things plastered on my classroom walls saying ‘go back to Africa’.”

In addition to teaching a couple of classes at UNCA, Dolly Mullen taught night classes at Mars Hill, as the first and only black professor at the school in 1986. She was pregnant at the time. Her husband would never let her go to the school alone, and he would wait in the car for hours while she taught.

Dee James had a group of female students approach her one semester and commented that they were surprised her class was so informative.

They were regularly charged by the university with the task of recruiting more black students and often felt like they were not treated equally — “which, like I learned as a child, we never would be,” she said.

But as they found solace and strength in their shared experiences, the four forged on.

As they grew from new professors to more seasoned ones, Dwight Mullen started toying with the idea of creating a community within UNCA that would lower the alarmingly high dropout rates for black students.

Dolly Mullen felt the real problem was a social one, with many black students repeatedly hearing racist taunts at sporting games and on-campus events, she said.

During those years, many black students were experiencing for the first time in their lives what it felt like to be the only black student in their classrooms.

“If you were acknowledged in class at all you were treated as remedial or pointed out as the representative of all the black students in the school,” Charles James said.

The need to address the setbacks and high dropout numbers motivated the four of them as they established the African-American Colloquium in 1991.

This was a cornerstone project, and one they most excitedly talk about with one another.

It was a bold idea - to require that all black freshman students take additional classes with them with the hope they would have a better grasp on their identity and what they wanted to accomplish at UNCA.

“I thought we should create a historically black campus into a white campus and the colloquium was conceptually going to do that,” Dwight Mullen said. “I thought the students who were black needed to have specialized training that gave them an understanding of who they were.”

The colloquium include field trips to historically black cities, like Charleston and New Orleans, and included a mentorship component that often led to students going to the Mullens’ home after hours to keep discussing their future.

The colloquium still has an effect on Prince John Gaipher-Eli, who was one of the first students to graduate from the Africana Studies program established by the professors.

“I never had a black male teacher before coming to UNCA,” said Gaipher-Eli, an entrepreneur. “So for me to see a black Ph.D. like Dwight and watch the way he handled the classroom, it was like seeing superman for the first time. He was like a superhero to me.”

The colloquium allowed him to access resources he never knew were available and to stay enrolled in school.

Dwight Mullen in particular, Gaipher-Eli said, challenged his idea of what it meant to be an educated man - a question he has pondered since graduating from UNCA in the late 90s with a degree in political science.

“When you are educated what does that mean?” said Gaipher-Eli, echoing Mullen’s commonly asked question. “What he was trying to get us to understand as we prepared to graduate that it was not the end of this journey. As a scholar it means you apply to life what you learn, and information is not to be archived and kept to yourself. You give it back to people in the wider world.”

The colloquium ran for over 10 years before other programs started. Retention rates for black students increased dramatically and other black professors joined in to help. Over time, white professors interned in the program and were considered allies of the mission of the colloquium, which laid the foundation for other initiatives like the State of Black Asheville.

Africana Studies, Native American Studies, Asian American Studies and Women and Gender Studies followed the model established by the four professors and went on to include even more students who were typically forgotten, Dwight said.

As they reflect on their time, they look to the future, and the legacy they leave behind.

The four retired professors easily agreed the hardest task they face is giving up teaching and working directly with students.

Mullen said he is most proud of the programs he helped established outside of Africana Studies, like Native American Studies.

Charles James hopes professors in the sciences won’t forget about the importance of including humanities, since he taught in both departments and saw the value of including the human element into the sciences.

Dee James wants to continue seeing fearless students carve their own paths in the world with professors as their guides.

And Dolly Mullen hopes UNCA will become embraced by Western North Carolina and considered as offering experts in cultivating a thought-provoking community.

UNCA has so much more to offer, Dwight Mullen said.

“I am disappointed it hasn’t reached into the community enough,” he said. “I think Asheville could benefit tremendously from the resources of UNCA.”

Dee James said she fears President Donald Trump’s rhetoric is widening the nation’s divisions.

“One thing that is scary to me is the way in which the divide has erupted in the last few years,” she said. “To see how many people are entrenched in their own beliefs and are no longer working to find common ground.”

But they all agree their legacy is safe, with the current collective of all professors of color and a supportive administration leading UNCA.

“The university with the black faculty that are there will run with it, and our young black colleagues are very committed to these experiences we established,” Dolly Mullen said.

Dee James agreed and added, “Today there is not only black faculty but a huge faculty of color who are committed to equity.”

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Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com

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