Stella Crockett-Courtney, vice president of the Schenectady Association of Retired Teachers, was a newly minted high school graduate living in Lubbock, Texas, with her family in the summer of 1961. She looked forward to starting the next chapter of her life. A stroke of a pen altered her life plans profoundly.
"Texas Tech University integrated that summer," Crockett-Courtney said of the four-year research university located in her hometown.
Her parents and her band director encouraged her to attend as one of the first African-American students.
"I had to pay $300 a semester to attend Texas Tech, versus a full scholarship to Langston, but my parents didn't even think about the money — that's how important it was to them that I get that degree," said Crockett-Courtney.
The next four years brought a host of new experiences, some good, some bad. "I had to do a bus transfer each day and I remember going to Woolworths, which had just integrated, and getting a hamburger to eat on the way," she said. "When I opened the bag I saw they hadn't wrapped it, [they] just threw the burger in."
A psychology professor used the "N-word" on the first day of class after seeing her in the front row. "I went right to the administration building and dropped the course," she said. "I figured he might not be fair."
She was in the Texas Tech student union in 1963 when President Kennedy's assassination was announced. "We black students were sitting together and a group of white students jumped up and screamed and cheered, ‘The N-lover is dead!'" she said. Fighting back wasn't an option, but the experience hurt.
Others were respectful. "They might not have wanted to be my friend, but they would speak," she said. "My home economics teacher and a biology teacher were very nice."
Despite stories of the verbal and physical abuse suffered by integration pioneers like the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., Crockett-Courtney wasn't afraid to attend Texas Tech. "I was so gung-ho about getting an education, I don't think I was scared," she said, crediting her strength to her faith. "I did what I had to do and trusted in the man above."
In 1965, Crockett-Courtney became the first African-American to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Texas Tech.
Nearly 60 years later, and after 43 years in the classroom, most working with special needs students, her message is perseverance.
"No matter what happens, you keep pushing," she said. "Don't let anyone or anything stop you from reaching your goals."