Be Whatever You Want to Be

Hortense McClinton talks about being the first Black UNC professor, race and having a residence hall named after her.

Two years after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and one year after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Hortense K. McClinton made history by becoming the first Black professor at UNC.

McClinton, who lived in Durham at the time with her husband, John Willie McClinton, was hired as a full-time faculty member in the School of Social Work. She taught for 18 years until retiring in 1984.

Being hired as the first Black professor at one of the country’s top universities was no small feat for a woman who grew up in Boley, Oklahoma, without her mother, Davonah Thompson King, who died in 1920 when McClinton was 2 years old. A year later, just 60 miles away, white supremacists killed between 100 and 300 people in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, known as Black Wall Street, in what became known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. They also destroyed most of Greenwood’s homes and businesses and, years later, threatened to repeat the act in Boley but never did.

This past summer, in her Silver Spring, Maryland, home, McClinton sat down with the Review to talk candidly about what it meant to be UNC’s first Black professor, race and other subjects, such as the renaming of Aycock Residence Hall to the McClinton Residence Hall, which was dedicated in May. The interview occurred less than a month before her 104th birthday, which she celebrated with her daughter and other relatives. She received more than 70 cards and more than 10 flower bouquets.

McClinton earned her undergraduate degree from Howard University and her master’s in social work from the University of Pennsylvania in 1941. After graduating, she applied for a job at the Durham VA Hospital, where she would become the first Black professional. During the hiring process, the man interviewing her asked how she’d gotten to Penn, an Ivy League school. “On the train,” she replied.

Although she said she faced some racism at UNC, McClinton insisted the not-so-good treatment was mainly at the hands of white professors who started working at Carolina toward the end of her tenure. Her social work colleagues and students, she said, treated her fairly.

McClinton knows her appointment was a significant milestone in 1966 but said she never fixated on the fact she was the first Black professor at the University because she knew she was qualified for the position. McClinton faced some challenges at UNC but said she never considered quitting and enjoyed teaching at the University.

She may be taking her “fame” in stride, but the University hasn’t. In 2013, an award given to a current or past UNC faculty or staff member for outstanding contributions to the Carolina community was renamed the Hortense K. McClinton Outstanding Faculty Staff Award. The awards are presented during the GAA-sponsored Black Alumni Reunion’s Light on the Hill Society annual awards gala, at which the Light on the Hill Society Scholarships are presented. The scholarship fund raises money to assist Black students who enroll at Carolina. In 2021, McClinton received the GAA’s Faculty Service Award. The renaming of the residence hall is just the latest honor.

During the residence hall dedication ceremony, the University also dedicated the Owl Office Building, formerly the Carr Office Building. It has been renamed for Henry Owl, an American Indian who became UNC’s first student of color when he enrolled in graduate school at Carolina in 1928.

The following interview was edited for clarity and length.

What do you recall about your childhood?

I grew up in Boley, Oklahoma, about 60 miles from Tulsa and 60 miles from Oklahoma City. I was 3 years old when they had the 1921 race riots in Tulsa. My mother, Davonah Thompson King, died in childbirth when I was 2. My father, Sebrone King, was born in 1865, the year Black people learned they’d been freed from slavery. We lived in a wooden house. My father was a bank president, but he also cut and sold timber and ran a cotton gin. When I was 12, he sent me to live with my Uncle Stacy and his wife in Guthrie, Oklahoma, because he was going to be traveling a lot for work.

Was education stressed in your household?

Yes. I always knew I’d go to college. My maternal grandmother, my father, my mother, my uncle and his wife all graduated from college. During my freshman year, I went to Langston College [now Langston University] in Langston, Oklahoma. I transferred after that year to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where I graduated in 1939, magna cum laude, with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. My brother, Sebrone Jr., also graduated from Howard in 1939. In addition, I earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania in 1941.

Did you always want to be a college professor?

No. When I was in the eighth grade, a Black woman came to our school and spoke on social work, and it hit me that that’s what I wanted to do. We always left school at noon and went home to have our lunch, and while we were eating, I told my uncle my homeroom teacher said I couldn’t be a social worker because I didn’t have enough money. My uncle told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. So, from the eighth grade on, I was going to be a social worker. I didn’t plan to teach, but I ended up teaching for 18 years at Carolina.

What brought you to North Carolina?

I worked at UPenn in the 1940s as an adjunct professor, supervising students who were working on their master’s degrees in social work. I also started speaking once a year at their School of Social Work and got paid $15 for speaking, which I thought was marvelous because that was a lot of money back then. I met a man, John Willie McClinton, an auditor for North Carolina Mutual Insurance Co. in Durham. We got married in 1947, and in 1948 I moved to North Carolina.

How did you land the job at UNC, becoming the University’s first Black professor?

After moving to North Carolina, I got a job in the VA Hospital in Durham and supervised some UNC student interns, which is how I got on UNC’s radar. When someone from UNC offered me a job through a grant, I told them I wouldn’t go any place for grant money because the grant would run out and the job would end. I held out until two years later when they had “hard money” as I call it, and then I accepted their offer.

What do you recall about being UNC’s first Black professor?

I didn’t want to make an issue of it. I was supposed to be there because I was qualified to hold that job, and I didn’t feel like the University was doing me any favors by hiring me. Being the only Black professor on campus, I was asked to be on 11 committees my first year. Some people outside of campus were racist toward me, but not at the University when I first started. I had some very good friends in the social work department, though most of them have died. White students would come and talk to me about race relations — mainly about how their parents acted toward Black people. I learned a lot from them. We all have lived experiences … and you should get to know people before making preconceived judgments about them. I never thought about quitting my first year or at any time in my 18 years at Carolina.

What was your reaction to a residence hall being named after you?

I think when they renamed a dorm after me and a building after Henry Owl, they were trying to be fair. I feel a lot of schools, in the South and up North, instead of going backwards need to go forward. I think universities are increasingly trying to show they’re not racist.

Would you say race relations have improved at UNC?

I don’t really know because I haven’t been on campus much since I retired 38 years ago, but the renaming of buildings and the removal of Silent Sam are good signs.

What advice would you give to a young professor of color at UNC today?

Be prepared to do the job you’re hired to do, and do it well. Keep learning and stand up for your right to be able to do what is right. Know that everybody at the University has the right to thrive regardless of race.

What are your hobbies?

Traveling and reading. I’ve been to Switzerland, England, Germany, Madagascar, Gibraltar, Hawaii, Spain and Portugal, as well as many of the major U.S. cities.

How did you spend your 104th birthday on Aug. 27?

With my daughter, Linda Janet McClinton Bell, and her husband, Theodore Bell, in their home in Bowie, Maryland. I received over 70 cards, more than 10 flower bouquets and my relatives put together 2 ½ hours of birthday greetings for me to listen to. My granddaughter, Beverly Copeland, who shares my birthday on Aug. 27, was there. I had a wonderful birthday!

 What do you want your legacy to be?

I never really thought about leaving a legacy, and I also didn’t fixate on being the first Black professor at Carolina. I have just always tried to do my best on any job I had. My father taught me that. If I had to say one thing regarding a legacy, I’d say I hope the path I laid at UNC will continue, and the University won’t hesitate to hire talented Black professors to educate today’s young minds. Diversity is very important, not just at Carolina but across the country. I’m humbled the University has named a residence hall after me, and since that announcement, I’ve received letters from students of all races across the country congratulating me. I’m also humbled by the McClinton Faculty Staff Award that’s given annually. But what would mean the most to me is knowing Black students at Carolina can learn from professors who look like them.

— Laurie D. Willis ’86


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