JoAnne Smart and Bettye Tillman: First In Integration

Posted on March 04, 2024

JoAnne Smart and Bettye Tillman


Smart’s acceptance letter to the Woman’s College.

JoAnne Smart ’60 (now Smart Drane) and Bettye Ann Davis Tillman ’60 (later Davis Sanders) were the first Black students to attend Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina, now UNC Greensboro. The pair have paved the way for other Black female students to thrive at UNCG.

Both women graduated in 1960 and were from North Carolina: Tillman from Wadesboro, and Smart from Raleigh. Upon their acceptance, the students lived in Shaw Residence Hall. A parlor in the residence hall was named for Tillman and Smart in 1992.

While the road to desegregation at Woman’s College was not easy, several faculty members were active in the effort to desegregate WC, including Warren Ashby, a philosophy professor. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1951 that white professional schools had to admit Black students if there was not a comparable segregated Black school. This led to the door starting to open for Black men, including three at UNC’s School of Law.  Although the landmark Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision integrated primary schools across the country in 1954, this did not guarantee admission for Black students at higher education institutions.

“Once I was aware of Brown v. Board of Education, it just seemed to offer a lot of hope for doing things that had not been done previously,” said Smart Drane. “I realized that this was an opportunity that could be had. So why not pursue it?”

Finally in 1956, Woman’s College was integrated following a lawsuit brought by three African American men against the UNC System. Read more about Woman’s College road to integration here.


This dedication of the Tillman-Smart Parlor in the Shaw Residence Hall on April 20, 1992. In the photograph are (l-r) former UNCG Chancellor William E. Moran, JoAnne Smart Drane, and Bettye Tillman’s son Ronald Sanders.

When asked if she considered herself a trailblazer, Drane said “only in the sense that the opportunity to do what I did could have been done by so many others before me. But those doors were closed, and they did not have the same opportunity … If they had the same privilege, [they] could have gone through the same doors and done even more.”

Smart Drane became very involved with the University following her graduation, including serving on the Board of Trustees. In 2023, Smart Drane attended the dedication of the UNCG Astera statue in honor of Woman’s Collage. Hear an oral history from Smart Drane in 2008 here.

Tillman is now deceased, but her name lives on in the Smart-Tillman Distinguished Professorship in the School of Music, Dance, and Theatre, currently held by the coordinator of UNCG’s musical theatre program Dominick Amendum.

The two women paved the way for other Black women to make their mark at UNCG, including Antoinette Gregory, a UNCG McNair Scholar studying how race, gender, and the intersectionality of both influence the experience of Black women in post-graduate higher education settings.

“As someone who wants to be a professor, I think it’s important to understand how the intersectionality of the students that I teach can impact their experience,” says Gregory, who is studying information science with a minor in African American and African diaspora studies and philosophy. “I hope to utilize this knowledge to create a space where my students feel safe, heard, and seen.”

Smart Drane at the dedication of the Woman’s College tribute in April 2023.
UNCG student Awa Mbai stands in front of the EUC
Awai Mbai, current UNCG Student Government Association President.

The legacy of Tillman and Smart can also be seen in current student leadership with the Student Government Association President Awa Mbai.

“I came from an area where there were predominately White institutions my entire life,” says Mbai, who is a first-generation college student studying political science with a minor in Spanish. “So, seeing the diversity at UNCG drew me to the University.”

Story by Avery Craine Powell, University Communications
Additional research/interviews by Erin Lawrimore, University Archivist

Photography by Sean Norona and David Lee Row, University Communications
Historical photography courtesy of the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives at the University Libraries

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