An Interview with James McCorkle
James McCorkle ’66 is a soft-spoken man, but at a recent event to mark the 50th anniversary of integration at Guilford he graciously answered questions about his experience as the College’s first African-American student.
Guilford College: Could you start by talking about the climate and culture of Guilford College at the time, as you remember it?
James McCorkle: It’s always been a quiet campus to my knowledge. It’s always been a quiet campus and there was perhaps more community going on here than I realized, though. I was in English dorm and the upstairs was for I think the football players, jocks and so forth, as they call them, and I was on the bottom floor.
I remember the dinners and in the evenings the table was set and everything when we all sat down, and I’m trying to find out if that was something that only happened on special occasions or did it happen on a regular basis, because I seem to think it happened on a regular basis.
I sort of enjoyed the quietness, because I could deal with it.
GC: How did you come to Guilford?
JM: The guidance counselor had actually recommended me and called me in and told me that this was an opportunity that I was a perfect candidate for. She thought that I ought to look into it. It was really encouragement from her. And then (some friends told me), “Oh, you could go on over there, and you’d be the first one.” That notion I guess was there, and that contributed to it, but it wasn’t easy. I did have my heart set on Morehouse.
GC: When you got here was it difficult for you to make friends?
JM: I had a couple of roommates, and there were several people I think who were “designated” to be my friends, that is, I think they were supposed to be looking out for me. I made a few friends, and I guess as the years went on more friends. In the dorm I learned to play cards. I actually learned to play bridge, because that’s what they played here on campus. I did some intramural sports, particularly in the later years. I played tennis almost from the beginning because that had been my sport in high school.
So I think I made some friends here, but they didn’t really turn out to be friends that went beyond campus, except for perhaps one fellow in particular who was my classmate. Even a few years ago, he found me on the Internet and sent me a letter and a picture and everything. But he was from New York and I had lived with him when I came back from the Peace Corps. I came back and spent time with him up in New York. That was the only connection beyond (campus) that was of any significance.
GC: What challenges did you face upon coming to Guilford?
JM: I guess the challenge of being here by myself, in terms of being the only black person that was here. There were challenges academically, but I’d always felt like I could do it. I grew up during a period of time when they were tracking the best students as they call them (and put them) in a classroom altogether. I’d always been in the top classroom, so I always thought I could do the work. I hadn’t run into anything I didn’t understand until I ran into that calculus class.
GC: Looking back at your Guilford experience 50 years after it started, what might you tell your younger self back then?
JM: Probably to try to remember a bit more — to write some things down. It would be fabulous, for example, if I had kept a diary. I would have probably realized a lot more and remembered a lot more. But that’s in retrospect; at the time I was just here, trying to go through it.
GC: Do you have a best memory from Guilford?
JM: One of the best memories was of the dinners that I told you about. Also, I haven’t mentioned it, but the president’s wife — the president was Dr. Milner at the time — but the president’s wife, I enjoyed her class because it was different. It was in an auditorium — I forget the name, I think they call it the Duke building now. It was a cultural class that everybody I think had to take. There were slides, and we had to learn the different artists, the great painters and so forth. (We learned about) music and who the great composers were. So it was sort of a cultural kind of course, and it served me well, because I ended up going to Paris and going to the Louvre and I saw the actual pictures and I remembered what they were and who they were by.
GC: What did you do upon graduating?
JM: I taught at a high school, the same place where I did my student teaching. Something happened to the teacher, I think she got sick or something like that, so I was in a prime position to take her place, but it was a temporary kind of thing. So I did that for one year, and then I went to the Peace Corps.
GC: “First African-American at a University” seems like an incredible and awesome title to have earned and to have. How has that affected you, if at all?
JM: Well, it’s affected me more in the past year than it has before. Just the idea or thought of it because I’ve done more thinking about it since I’ve retired; I guess part of retirement is looking back and thinking about where you’ve been and what you did and so forth. It’s becoming more and more of an experience that I look at and say, “Hey, I really overlooked the significance of what happened to me at the time, what I was a part of.” It’s a good feeling.
GC: How has Guilford itself affected your life?
JM: It set me in a position where I was very much accustomed to an all-white environment. I felt comfortable in that environment so that when I got out and into other cultures, actually, I transferred that idea because once again I was in an environment (like that) that was all Malaysian, or Chinese, or something like that. The feelings, the way you handle yourself, and what you learn, I think part of that transferred (for me). But also, I think it was a part of my not having a difficulty standing in front of a classroom of practically all white students in some of the honors classes I taught. I think it prepared me for a world other than just an all-black world.
GC: Is there anything you’d like to say to current Guilford students?
JM: Yeah, I’d like to say I’m impressed with what I see is happening with Guilford overall. I like their green efforts. I brag about the basketball team, even though I didn’t come and see any of the games. People talk about their teams from their schools, and when I saw Guilford doing so well, I bragged about that. I did get to meet the coach, by the way.
In particular, what they’re doing in the Multicultural Department, I’m very happy with, and I hope that they’ll continue that. And I hope that Guilford altogether, that everybody will come work together, because it’s not just about integration. It’s not about trying to do it, it’s about being it — actually being that way. I hope that’s what will happen at Guilford so that it’ll just become something that’s natural.
Interview conducted by David Pferdekamper ’12