BAR Awards Profile – Karen L. Parker ’65

2004 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumna Award
Karen L. Parker ’65

The Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award is named, of course, for the first black student to earn a Carolina degree, the law degree Beech earned in 1952.

As Karen Lynn Parker receives the award, we note that she was the first black woman to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University — 13 years after Beech, in 1965.

Why did that milestone come so much later? Dozens of other black students had attended Carolina before Karen, but many found it so uncomfortable that they transferred.

Karen had some isolating, discouraging experiences of her own. She arrived in 1963 to find she’d been assigned no roommate for her double room in Cobb dormitory. She soon learned that she was the only black undergraduate woman on campus.

But Karen still believed she’d come to the right place. She had the toughness, tenacity and strength of spirit to help change Carolina for the better. Those qualities suited her perfectly to her major, journalism. She left only when she’d earned the degree she’d come for.

Karen started college at UNC-Greensboro before transferring to Chapel Hill. Her parents warned that her segregated high school might not have prepared her as well as other students for the state’s flagship university.

They were being overly modest. Karen had been the valedictorian Atkins High School. She was already filling in as Negro Page editor at the Winston-Salem Journal. She flourished at Carolina. She made the dean’s list her first semester and entered the honors program.

One friend said this of her: “She was painfully aware of the example she was expected to set. She was bright, poised, pretty and so much more than that. She became a genuine heroine to everyone by having the strength of character to get up every day and just be herself.”

Karen focuses her memories on the “bunches” of friendly white students and professors at Carolina who were eager to know her. She recalls how excited she was to attend plays, operas, concerts and seminars.

She considered herself a beatnik. She joined the civil rights movement and was arrested twice for civil disobedience. She fit in well at the journalism school.

Karen relegates her unpleasant Carolina memories to the journal she kept in that first dorm room—and in the room she shared the following year with a white woman from Wilmington.

Whenever she thinks of Carolina, her first thought is, “I got a darn good education,” she says.

After nearly four decades, Karen’s career has come full circle. She’s back at the Winston-Salem Journal as a copy editor after working at two Midwestern papers, being a full-time mom for 10 years, and becoming Sunday news editor at the Los Angeles Times. She has served on the UCLA Communications Board and the board of the Society of Professional Journalists.

When Karen recently reunited with old campus friends to visit their former haunts in Chapel Hill, she looked with great pride on a more diverse student body than the one she had known. She is proud she could help open the way for people of color.

“It feels very good to me,” she says. “At the time, I just wanted to be me, but that’s really what it was all about.”