Gloria Washington remembers attending Texas Woman's University in the 1960s, when she went to the "old maid" movies on campus - not because she didn't have a date but because black people weren't allowed in movie theaters.
Sharon Cranford also studied at TWU in the 1960s and remembers not being allowed to travel to competitions with the other music students her first semester because different races weren't allowed to room together.
Washington and Cranford were among the first six black women to graduate from TWU in 1966. Both plan to return Saturday and Sunday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the university's desegregation.
"The '60s were an incredible time in the United States of America," said Dianne Randolph, who earned her bachelor's degree in 1969 and her master's degree in 1971 from TWU.
It was an incredible time to be coming of age in America, she said - not only were the races integrating, but the women's rights movement was also picking up steam.
"Our lives were changing completely," said Randolph, who is one of the founding members of the TWU Black Alumni Association, which organized this weekend's events.
A look back
"It was not always easy," Washington, 67, said during a recent phone interview. There were times, despite the gains brought by desegregation, when situations didn't work out the way the women thought they should.
"Of course, I didn't have anything to compare it to as far as college was concerned," said Washington, who began studying journalism at TWU in 1962.
She was surprised that school desegregation was big news everywhere else, but "at TWU it just kind of happened."
Four of the six black women lived in Sayers dorm and the other two lived in Capps Hall but because the "dorm mother" was mean, "they spent a lot of time at Sayers with us," Washington said.
She worked hard and eventually became business manager of the university's newspaper. In that role, she'd walk to the Square to collect ads. She doesn't remember being treated poorly on those trips.
But not every encounter was without incident.
Washington said her roommate visited a restaurant across the street from TWU but was asked to leave because the owner said he didn't serve blacks.
Despite how she and her friends were sometimes treated back then, Washington tries to keep a positive attitude. IF YOU GO
• What: "A Historical Retrospective: 50 Years of Integration at TWU," an exhibit featuring items chronicling the desegregation of Texas Woman's University• When: now through Sept. 23• Where: first floor of TWU's Blagg-Huey Library• Details: Free. For more information, call 940-898-3701 or visit www.twu.edu/library/hours.asp .
"Oh well, it's just something that happened," she said.
The group went to church in the black part of town, she said. On Sunday mornings, the pastor would pick them up from the university and drive them to church.
Texas A&M University was TWU's brother school but there weren't any black men at A&M, so when TWU students took weekend trips to A&M, Washington and her friends didn't go. When Washington had to write an article about the trips for the paper, she had another student relate to her what happened.
Three of Washington's sisters also attended TWU, two who graduated - one in 1967, one in 1972 - while her third sister went to TWU for two years before transferring to another university.
Cranford, 66, transferred to TWU in 1964.
She remembers that professors and students had a mixed response to desegregation. She said it never got so bad that they were spat on, but professors and students would pretend not to see them.
"We had some of our professors still using the N-word," she said. "But then others were very open and caring, and really helped to make the experience and the education process worthwhile."
She said the most difficult part was that TWU's infrastructure wasn't integrated. The dormitories required white students to room with whites and black students to room with blacks.
"You could not room with a white person," Cranford said. "That was a stickler."
If there wasn't another black woman to room with, the woman had to pay for a private room.
"Most of my time was spent with African-American students because we developed a bond," Cranford said.
The community wasn't very welcoming either, she said.
"Denton was awful in the mid-'60s," she said. "They still had segregated areas. I remember in particular the bowling alley kids liked to go to was closed to us. We had our tough moments."
Cranford found solace in one of her voice professors, Joan Wall, now a professor emerita at TWU.
Cranford said Wall was supportive and "apparently more accustomed to diversity."
Wall came to TWU in 1964 and brought a black graduate student with her from Louisiana State University.
"There was no question in my mind" that the women deserved to be at TWU, Wall said. "It didn't seem strange to me that they were there."
She wasn't aware of everything the black students faced at the time. Wall found out later that when she cast Cranford as the lead role in a play - The Medium by Gian Carlo Menotti - that others didn't think she should have been cast.
"She was fully qualified and did a beautiful job," Wall said.
Later, Wall helped Cranford get a scholarship to another university for her graduate studies.
"I was responding to her as I would any talented student - to help them as much as I can," Wall said.
Looking back, Wall said she admires the women for what they put up with. She didn't realize their hardships, she said - "that when they left my studio and went into the halls they were facing things I didn't know about."
But when the women came to her classroom they were always positive, Wall said.
Washington, who now lives in Kansas City, Mo., and Cranford, who lives in Wichita, Kan., will return to TWU to take part in Saturday's panel discussion "Voices of the First Graduates."
Washington, Cranford and the other first graduates will talk about the past, present and future during the panel discussion.
"I'm hoping to learn from the most recent alums," Cranford said. "What type of professors they have now and what types of experiences the students are being exposed to."
When Cranford graduated, she was hurt by how she had been treated and said she'd never set foot on campus again.
"I am going back - that is remarkable in itself," Cranford said.
She was back earlier this year for a planning session for the upcoming event and was able to see her voice professor, Joan Wall, again.
"I was very pleased to see the improvements that have been seen on campus," Cranford said.
She said recent graduates have talked to her about their positive experiences at TWU.
"Things have changed over the past several years and it lifted a load from my heart," she said.
Washington has talked with some of the other women in her graduating class, and she's looking forward to being with them.
Washington has driven past campus when she's been in the area but hasn't been back for any of the reunions.
"It hasn't always been real pleasant memories," she said.
Keeping things in focus
While Washington, Cranford and Randolph were at TWU, their quest for a degree kept them going.
"The main thing for us was we were there for one reason, and that was to graduate," Washington said.
She said it was hard for some of the first black students to focus - that's why it took some longer to get through school.
"It's like a culture shock," she said. "Some kids are more resilient than others."
Washington, a retired elementary school teacher, said her life has been very good.
"I think TWU played a part in that," she said. "You stay the course. Things are not always going to be easy."
Randolph, a Denton resident who studied music performance and music education at TWU, said she was focused on her studies and remembers splitting her time between practice rooms, the library and Hubbard Hall, where students ate.
"I enjoyed TWU much more my last two years than my first two years," she said.
She characterized her time at TWU with the Grace Jones song "I'm Not Perfect."
"TWU was not perfect, but for that time it was perfect for me," she said.
RACHEL MEHLHAFF can be reached at 940-566-6889. Her e-mail address is email@example.com .