League of Her Own
Barry’s campus provided
Cassandra Roberson ’66 with a little breathing room
in the segregated Miami of the
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
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
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.
tensions were at their height during the 1960s and
thousands of black children suffered from the widespread
and institutionalized prejudice.
others thrived, like the girl in that picture with the
proud smile and beaming eyes.
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.”
Roberson accomplished something far greater than simply
earning a college degree.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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
University had graduate and part-time black students but
no full-time undergraduates. Benedetto decided that it
was time to integrate the entire university.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
befriending Roberson did not come without a price.
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.
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.
Stubbs returned home she faced the wrath of her parents.
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.”
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.
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 to the real world.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
Roberson stayed and weathered the abuse because she was
doing what she loved.
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.”
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.
unfortunate, she says, but not surprising. Prejudice is
a difficult thing for some to give up.
hope exists, Roberson finds it in the hearts and minds
of the next generation.
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.”
Webster is a staff writer for New Orleans CityBusiness,
covering crime and health care.
*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.
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