Student and civil rights activist Robin Gregory was at the vanguard of change at Howard University, a long-established, conservative institution in Washington, D.C. with a tradition of educating black professionals.
Here, Gregory describes the awakening of black consciousness within her as she participated in civil rights actions, changed her hairstyle to a natural Afro, and ran for homecoming queen, becoming a symbol to the student body of a growing interest in black culture, history, and equality.
by Robin Gregory
When I first went to Howard it was in 1962. The first year was pretty uneventful. I was just studying. One thing I do remember was the sort of provincial mindset that was there. Like, one of the things that first happened when we went there was that all the women had a special assembly. Patricia Harris was the dean of women at that time, and we had this lecture on etiquette, and how we were supposed to dress, and how we were supposed to behave. And we were supposed to be ladies. I didn't quite accept that for myself, and I didn't feel like I had to conform to that sort of thing either, because I didn't live on the campus. I lived in Washington, D.C.
Most of the students were middle class and they wanted to be good. They wanted to succeed, and they wanted to have a good time. A lot of them were looking for husbands, I remember that. I felt that there wasn't a lot of deep thinking going on among the students that were there when I first went there.
That next summer, I worked on the March on Washington Committee, and I met a lot of people through that. I was in the strategic offices setting the whole thing up, before, during, and after. So that was my first introduction to the movement.
The summer of 1964 I was the liaison in the Washington, D.C., SNCC office for the voter registration project in the South, Mississippi specifically. The liaison part was that people would call me from Mississippi in the office to chronicle some of the incidents that would happen, so that I could contact the attorney general's office and report. That summer was the 1964 Democratic convention. I went to Atlantic City, and some women from Mississippi came up and they were wearing their hair natural. I was real turned on by that statement. In the fifties I had an aunt who was wearing her hair in a natural. It was a real radical thing to do, and everybody in the family always talked about her, so it wasn't something that was completely foreign, the image itself, but it was exciting for me to see that somebody was going it. I felt it was an affirmation of being who we were. The energy was very high, emotion was very high. Getting a sense of who we were and what we were doing was really acute at the time. And I just decided that I was going to wear my hair that way, and make a statement that way.
When I came back home, and I was wearing my hair like that, my family was pretty horrified. And I got a lot of comments from people on the street. People got angry about it. It was like I was exposing a secret. That was the first reaction. That reaction went a long time, because I didn't have a lot of company. Maybe one or two other people were doing it. Well, there was one person in particular who had worn her hair like that for a year prior to that, or maybe even two, and that was Mary Lovelace, who was Stokely Carmichael's girlfriend at the time. So there was a precedent before that, but the response was pretty negative.
A lot of things were happening in 1966, in terms of where the movement was going. It was just beginning to be the dawn of the whole Black Power movement, getting away from the more conservative approach to change through the way the civil rights movement had been going, into Black power consciousness. And it was right on the edge of that. And there were a few students at Howard who were very politically involved in things, and I was one of them. But someone came up with an idea that we should make a statement around the homecoming, because it was such a superficial kind of thing that kept affirming old values that we were trying to resist or trying to overthrow. So I was approached by some men from the law school, actually, and they asked me if I would do it, because they wanted to make a statement about the black aesthetic. And they wanted to resist the whole image. It's kind of hard to describe the atmosphere of the way that it went, but the fraternities would nominate a candidate who would run for the position. It was a popular election, by the way. But you had to be nominated by some on-campus organization. And usually they picked someone who was as close to white as they could possibly get. I mean, it didn't have to be skin color. It was just the whole image of the person. And so they said, "Well, will you do this? We want to run somebody that has a natural hairstyle. We know that you're politically active. Let's take this particular context and use it to make a statement." And so I was willing to do that.
The coronation itself was a pivotal point, and it energized a lot of people, causing them to begin to question a lot of the issues that we were bringing forward. And one of the things that happened, that was a big incident on the campus, was the spring after the coronation, the spring of 1967. Someone had invited General [Lewis] Hershey to the campus. And General Hershey was the head of the draft board. And people were just becoming aware of the Vietnamese war, and the fact that people were being drafted and sent to Vietnam, and that a large number of those people were black people. So, when we found out that he was being invited to speak, we decided that we didn't want that to happen, and we staged a demonstration. And, in essence, we didn't allow him to speak. There was a lot of shouting from the audience. There were a number of people that had placards that stormed the stage, and just booed him, essentially, out of the auditorium.
From Hampton, Henry, and Steve Fayer, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through the 1980s (New York: Bantam Books, 1990), pp. 427-429, 433-434, 436.