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Jon Mark Beilue: Before There Was Diversity

Feb. 14, 2019

Before There Was Diversity

While WT is 33 percent minority, Neal was the pioneer


Helen Neal wasn’t all that enamored about being a civil rights pioneer. She wasn’t going to shy from it, but more than anything, this mother of four just wanted to finish her college education in Amarillo. West Texas State was the logical place.

“When you don’t have an education, sometimes you make your world a smaller place,” she told northamarillonow.com. “If you get an education, your world can expand. You got to be ready for what life has in store for you.”

February is Black History Month, and Neal made history at WT in the spring of 1962, when she became the first African-American student to earn a bachelor’s degree, this one in education. Helen Neal

“We saw strength in her quietness,” said daughter Gloria Roberts of Amarillo. “She had a calm and quiet way of taking care of something, but her message was loud and clear.”

Neal (pictured right) went three years to an all-black Langston University in Lawton, Okla., in the late 1940s, but husband Nat Neal moved the family before she could graduate. In 1955, the Neals moved from Oklahoma City to Amarillo so Nat could initially teach at the Amarillo Air Force Base.

The Neals had four daughters, and life was full. But she was from a family of educators, and being a year from graduation was a hole that needed filling. But the question was, where? WT, at the time, did not permit black students.

The NAACP in 1961 felt like the time was right. Neal and a friend were asked to be the test cases in integrating WT. The NAACP twice had to file a lawsuit to break down the racial barrier.

Neal and a friend were the first to enroll at WT in 1961.  But her friend injured a hand that year, preventing her from performing a piano recital that was a requirement to get her degree in music.

“They needed a test person,” Neal told Amarillo College’s KACV in 2009. “I had been part of integrating a high school back in 1943 in Wichita (Kan.), so that didn’t bother me. But I didn’t think of myself as a test person as much as I just wanted to finish my degree.”

Neal’s daughters don’t recall her complaining of any prejudice or incidents at WT, which was ahead of most public Texas universities integrating not only the student body, but athletic teams as well. Neal’s biggest obstacle came at home.

“I had four kids, a husband and a dog,” she said. “When I went to school, I came home to fix dinner. I’d get up at 5 a.m. to study and studied while the children were in school.”

Neal went on to graduate 57 years ago in the spring of 1962.  Her dream was to be a social worker, but jobs were few then. She joined a number of organizations in Amarillo that were geared to social work, but her 20-year career was as a teacher at North Heights Elementary School and Humphrey’s Highland Elementary School.

“She got into education, which was the next best thing,” said daughter Delores Thompson. “She was always willing to help someone else. One of her strengths was a desire to see other people improve.”

Neal died at age 86 in October 2013.  But all four of her and Nat’s daughters went on to graduate from college. “Not ‘if’ you’re going to college,” Roberts said, “but ‘when.’”

Of the two Amarillo daughters, Thompson got a masters in nursing at WT, and spent a career teaching nursing at Amarillo College. Roberts taught home economics in the Amarillo ISD for nearly 30 years.

“The vision of blacks in this country is we are part of America, and you can learn at all stages to work together for everybody, not just blacks,” Neal said before her death. “But I don’t see much of that, and I’m frustrated by it.”

To that, Angela Allen (pictured below) is in her fourth year as WT’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. She graduated from Palo Duro High School, Amarillo College, Texas Tech, earned a master’s degree in communication from WT and is pursuing her doctorate in college leadership from Colorado State.

Allen’s charge is to expand initiatives on diversity in programming with students, faculty and staff. In essence, it’s not only to help further WT as a university of inclusion, but to expand diversity as an educational experience.

“What’s becoming more prevalent in job interviews is employees are asking students if they worked in diverse populations,” Allen said. “Employers want students who are not only strong academically, but are strong in co-curricular activities.” Angela Allen

Diversity, of course, is a far cry at nearly all universities, and certainly WT, since those civil rights day of the 1960s. With student enrollment right at 10,000, WT’s breakdown, according to figures provided by Allen, is 5.5 percent African-American, 25 percent is Hispanic, and 3 percent is International. So right at one-third – or 3,300 -- of WT’s student population looks nothing like what Neal saw in 1962.

“College campuses are now the most diverse places you can find in the world,” Allen said.  “That’s where you find students of every culture, race, religion and ethnic background. In order for WT to be on the cutting edge as far as academics, we need to be on the cutting edge of co-curricular also.”

As an example, Allen has hosted a program of local law enforcement and students to discuss shootings nationally by police against blacks. Though a tough discussion, she believed all benefited from group and large discussions and created better understanding.

Allen is currently working on a diversity inventory, an online one-stop click that will house every class and every program that is geared in some way to diversity. That’s a long way from 1962 and a pair of lawsuits just to get two black women enrolled.

Allen, growing up in Amarillo, went to the same church – Johnson Chapel AME – where Neal taught Sunday School. She was a mentor to Allen.

“She was always talking about stretching – stretching yourself, stretching your money, stretching your meals, stretching your education,” Allen said. “She always wanted you to move forward, and it was education that was going to get you there.”

Do you know of a student, faculty member, project, an alumnus or any other story idea for “WT: The Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle?” If so, email Jon Mark Beilue at jbeilue@wtamu.edu.