Fall 2008 Issue

A League of Her Own

Barry’s campus provided Cassandra Roberson ’66 with a little breathing room in the segregated Miami of the 1960s.

By Richard A. Webster

Out of a stack of papers, Cassandra Roberson slides a small, black and white photograph of herself taken more than 40 years ago. The girl in the picture has bright eyes and a warm smile. But at the time there was little for a 20-year-old black woman to smile about in the Deep South.

Throughout her childhood, the forces of segregation told Roberson that she was not good enough, that she was a second class citizen. “You can’t sit here,” they said. “You can’t eat here, you can’t walk here. You need to leave.”

And those demands were often interspersed with the worst of racial epithets — it was shouted, whispered, hurled at her with degrading laughter and once written in large letters on a chalkboard by one of the eighth-grade students Roberson taught.

Racial tensions were at their height during the 1960s and thousands of black children suffered from the widespread and institutionalized prejudice.

But many others thrived, like the girl in that picture with the proud smile and beaming eyes.

“It was taken at the time of my graduation from Barry University,” Roberson says as she stares at the worn photo. “It was hard growing up back then, but the one place I felt safe, like I belonged, was at Barry. And the day I graduated was one of the proudest of my life.”

But Roberson accomplished something far greater than simply earning a college degree.

In 1962, she became the first black student accepted into Barry University and four years later the first to graduate. She was a pioneer at a time when many viewed progress as a threat.

“I was scared to death,” Roberson says, remembering the first time she set foot on the Barry campus. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make the grades. And, most of all, I was afraid I wouldn’t be accepted.”

But Roberson was accepted. Barry University “opened its arms,” took her in and gave her a safe-haven. In fact, it was her experience at Barry, Roberson says, that gave her the strength to not only survive but succeed in the deeply segregated South.

In 1961 Barry University wanted to integrate its entire student body so it reached out to pastors in black parishes around Miami in search of potential candidates. However, even though Barry offered a full, four-year scholarship, it found few takers.

At the time, Roberson says, society didn’t encourage blacks to attend college and those who did usually chose to go to northern states where racial attitudes were more accepting.

So Barry’s initial attempt to integrate faltered until a local priest extended the offer to a young girl he knew named Cassie Roberson.

Roberson’s family lived in Miami but she was attending a boarding school in Baltimore. She didn’t have any plans for after high school. She figured she would become a domestic house cleaner like her mother or join a convent. She figured that was as good as it was going to get.

And then she received a call from the family’s pastor who told her that if she wanted, she could go to college for free at Barry University, just a few miles from her home. There was only one catch — she would be the first black, full-time undergraduate student.

“I was terrified but I couldn’t pass that up,” Roberson says. “And I wanted so badly to come back home. As it turns out, out of all the girls they offered the scholarship to, I was the only one who accepted.”

Sister Arnold Benedetto, OP, was academic dean of Barry University at the time. She remembers receiving a call from a pastor in a local black parish. He told her about a young girl who was intelligent and creative and desperately wanted to go to college but she had no money

And she was black.

Barry University had graduate and part-time black students but no full-time undergraduates. Benedetto decided that it was time to integrate the entire university.

“He told me that she’d be a credit to the school and the church and that’s exactly what she was and has been,” Benedetto said. “She was very well accepted. We all liked her right from the start. She was so friendly and gracious.”

The warm reception took Roberson off guard. Within her first weeks she made friends with a small group of girls who took her in and treated her like an equal. To them, she was just another student, no one special, just Cassie, their new friend.

Pat Stubbs was Roberson’s best friend at Barry. She said none of them saw Roberson any different just because she was black. As far as they were concerned, she was nice, she was friendly and she fit right in.

“The nuns at Barry made it clear to everyone they weren’t going to tolerate racism so there was a good atmosphere,” Roberson says. “If I had anyone look at me funny, and it happened, I didn’t let it bother me because I had a real core of friends who didn’t care if I was black. I was never shunned. But outside of Barry, it was a different story.”

Off Barry’s campus there were still two sets of rules, one for whites and one for blacks, but Roberson now had something she hadn’t had before — the support of her new friends.

“Those girls,” she says, her eyes filled with memories, “if we went into a restaurant and they wouldn’t serve me they would all get up and leave. When I saw what they did for me, I realized I made friends at Barry I would never forget.”

But befriending Roberson did not come without a price.

From left to right: Alice Jones Barry, Academic Dean Sister Arnold Benedetto, OP, Cassie Roberson, Pat Stubbs and Sister Paul James Villemure, OP, professor of history, chat in the dorms during Cassie’s student days.

One night Stubbs took Roberson home for dinner before a school social. They sat down at the table to eat, gossip and laugh — a normal moment between friends. But the air was thick with tension. Stubbs’ mother did not sit down with the girls. She refused. She stood at a distance, seething with anger that her daughter would dare invite a black girl into their home.

Stubbs and Roberson left for the dance and as far as Roberson knew, nothing more came of the incident. But years later she learned the extent of Stubbs’ loyalty.

When Stubbs returned home she faced the wrath of her parents.

“They were furious. They said, ‘Forget it. We’re taking you out of that school.’ But I didn’t think anything of taking Cassie home,” Stubbs said. “She was just my friend. The funny thing is that my parents had talked to her lots of times on the phone. I guess they never realized she was black.”

Stubbs’ parents didn’t take her out of Barry and eventually their racial attitudes softened. When Stubbs’ sister, 15 years her junior, entered high school in the 1970s the public schools were fully integrated.

“My sister was in the school band which was 50 percent black and my parents became very involved. They went on trips with the band and had all the girls over to our house. I’ve often thought had we not had that incident with Cassie way back in the ’60s that would never have happened. But it did and they sat down at the table with the girls in the band without any problem. And occasionally, over the years, they’ve made a point to ask me how Cassie’s doing.”

Immediately following her graduation in 1966, Roberson said she was doing great. She was full of pride having earned a college degree and excited to take the tools she learned at Barry and apply them.

Roberson wanted to start a career as a teacher so she became one of the first two graduates to participate in Barry’s Time-Out Program. Tops, as it was known, called for recent graduates to temporarily fill in for Adrian Dominican nuns, to assume their teaching responsibilities so the Sisters could further their studies.

Her first assignment was at a middle school in Jacksonville. It was the beginning of what she hoped would be a rewarding career in education, Roberson said.

But, once again, the world outside of Barry proved itself not ready to bridge racial divides or attempt to rid itself of racism. Her middle school students easily matched the cruelty of the adults in the segregated South. The boys in her classroom heaped so much racial scorn on her that even today the memory of the experience causes her to wince and cover her face. One day she walked into her classroom and on the chalkboard, one of her 12-year-old students had scrawled a racial slur.

“What did I do? I erased it and told them to open their books. I was humiliated. I was shamed. If you don’t have a lot of self-confidence, it can really put a dent in you. But then I remembered what my mother taught me.”

Roberson’s mother immigrated to the United States from the Bahamas at the age of 15. Unlike her father, who grew up surrounded by segregation, her mother could never accept the idea that there should be a separate set of rules for whites and blacks.

“No matter how much she was teased or abused, she never lost her pride,” Roberson said. “She told me I belonged just as much as anybody else, that I was just as good as anybody else.”

Roberson admits that her experience in Jacksonville nearly forced her from the teaching profession. She constantly thought of quitting and even looked into getting a job at IBM. But always, in the back of her mind, were the words of her mother —“You’re just as good as anybody else.”

So Roberson stayed and weathered the abuse because she was doing what she loved.

“And after my time was done in Jacksonville, the boys who gave me so much trouble wrote me a note thanking me for being their teacher.”

Today, Roberson lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She is married with four children. She teaches math at Notre Dame Prep, a largely white, upper-income school. Though the world has changed drastically since the racially charged days of the 1960s, occasionally Roberson says she still must face parents who can’t come to terms with the idea that a black woman is teaching their children.

It is unfortunate, she says, but not surprising. Prejudice is a difficult thing for some to give up.

But if hope exists, Roberson finds it in the hearts and minds of the next generation.

“Kids today don’t see me as black, they just see me as Mrs. Roberson. So when I tell my students about what I experienced, they just can’t believe it. It’s different seeing a show on TV about segregation, but to actually talk to somebody who lived through it, it makes it real. And they get offended. Some get really mad. One girl started crying and asked me why I’m still Catholic. And I told her what I told myself when I was young and struggling to understand what was happening, when they made us sit in the back in a small section for blacks in church — this is not what Christ intended. And once I understood that, nothing else mattered.”

*Editor’s Note: The Barry Years, in which an alumna/us talks about his or her individual experience at Barry and how it has affected them at later stages in life, will be a regular feature in the Barry Magazine.

Richard A. Webster is a staff writer for New Orleans CityBusiness, covering crime and health care.