An Historic Commencement:
The 66 of '66 included UNC Asheville's first African-American graduate
This issue of UNC Asheville Magazine features a conversation with Etta Mae Whitner Patterson, who in 1961 was the first African American to enroll at the university. Because Patterson married and moved away before she finished her degree, history had to wait a little longer for UNC Asheville to graduate its first non-white student.
It wasn't until 1966 that the university presented its first diploma to an African American, Francine Delany.
Delany, who contributed a lifetime of service to Asheville and the surrounding community in support of childhood education, was a member of a celebrated class at UNC Asheville that year: The 66 of '66.
The cause for celebrating the Class of '66 goes beyond a chance pattern of repeating digits. Only a few years earlier, the college had established itself at the current North Asheville site with plans to build a larger campus. Yet by the time the new buildings opened in fall 1961, President Glenn Bushy was already talking about the next step. He wanted to see the school move toward a four-year Liberal Arts degree.
The plan was met with mixed reviews; skeptics said it was too much, too soon. But that didn't stop Bushy and his successor, Dr. William Highsmith. In 1963, the state agreed that Asheville-Biltmore College—a two-year community college—would become Asheville's four-year university.
That transition produced an interesting gap: graduation ceremonies ceased for two years until the first crop of students was ready to receive their bachelor's degrees. Thus, our alumni records feature two years without graduation.
By 1966, graduates donned caps and gowns again, and the university celebrated its first four-year class—66 students in total—and began a new era, bringing a black woman to the ranks of its graduates for the first time.