The month of February is Black History Month, and in celebration and honor of those who have dedicated their lives to equal rights, Penn State - Lehigh Valley welcomed Dr. Terrance Roberts, one of the original "Little Rock Nine," to the Center Valley campus.
On Wednesday, Roberts spoke to a crowd of students, teachers, and the general public about his experience as one of the first black students to be integrated into an all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. Roberts was among nine children to be the face of integration in history books to come.
"It was not a good place for me to have been born," Roberts said. The message in the south of the 1950s, he said, was that "you don't account for much; black skin is not the proper covering for a human being." Roberts feared being killed and he recounted how he created a plan to stay alive, to follow the rules of segregation.
But in 1954, when the Supreme Court issued its historic Brown vs. The Board of Education ruling, and disavowed “separate but equal,” Roberts discovered a new inner drive. Being just 12 at the time, and now having the law on his side, Roberts says he became invigorated.
Roberts recalled a Crystal Burger joint in Little Rock, where blacks were allowed to enter through the front door, but could only order food to go. After the change of the law, Roberts sat down at the counter after ordering a meal. "Everything stopped," he said, and the reaction of the other customers caused him to run out of the restaurant, sobbing, knowing he might be killed for his actions.
A short time following his burger-joint experience, Roberts was one of 150 other black students to volunteer to be the first to desegregate Little Rock Central High School. But once parents had their voice in giving parental permission, only 10 students remained.
According to Roberts, the father of Jane Hill, the 10th student, was told by his employers that he would be fired if his daughter attended the school. Hill’s father pulled her from the experience, but he lost his job anyway.
Roberts said he was driven by his respect for the sacrifice of those who came before him, paving the path for his acceptance and experience. "Life has no re-run," he told the Lehigh Valley attendees. "If you don't take advantage of it now, what are you going to do?"
"Even though the numbers were small, we excited a lot of people," Roberts said. At first, the Arkansas National Guard kept the black students out of the school at the request of Governor Orval Faubus. It took the U.S. Army to get the "Little Rock Nine" inside the school.
Roberts was 15 at the time, entering into eleventh grade at Central. He said he felt fear every day. White students walked out of classes. The nine students were harassed and beaten up on a regular basis. Some teachers were supportive, but others antagonistic.
Roberts said he practiced nonviolence. "I'm not a fighter," Roberts said, expressing that he doesn't understand fighting, violence, or war. Roberts spent much of his time in the library, and to this day sees value in education, saying it's never too late to be open to learning.
Roberts wanted to go back to Central for his senior year, but in efforts to resist segregation, the governor closed Central. Roberts moved to Los Angeles with family, and graduated from high school there.
"You can't change culture, but you can change you," he said, answering a student question. Roberts told his audience not to be at the mercy of anyone else. Choose your own path in the world and be your own teacher.
Roberts, along with his classmates, founded The Little Rock Nine Foundation, which creates scholarships for students. Eight of the nine are still alive.
The event at the Penn State satellite campus was sponsored by Student Affairs, the Student Government Association, and the Diversity Committee.