It’s Not About Color...It’s About Attitude
Riding down the mountain through the waning sunlight of a January’s Sunday afternoon to interview Pat Ferguson Beane, I tried to imagine how it would feel to be the first Black living on an all-white campus in an isolated community. Beane had entered Appalachian State University as a freshman in 1963. Since that time, she has held the position of “first” frequently in her life—and for all the right reasons.
The oldest of eleven children, Beane was the first in her family to attend college. She was encouraged to go to Appalachian by her high school teachers who had themselves attended Appalachian. Beane is quick to point out that although she is not the first Black to attend Appalachian she was the first Black student to live on campus. When asked how she felt to be the only Black on an all-white campus, she kept insisting that “it is not a question of color.” Beane affirms that “Appalachian opened up my eyes to the fact that everybody is wonderful, that there are no ‘good people’ or ‘bad people’ in this world, that that is an individual thing. Let me tell you something—I think your attitude is everything. If you go in with a positive attitude: “I’m here for a reason; I’m here to study; I’m her to graduate”—and you know that, you are okay. I think how you treat people is how you are treated.”
For Beane, the maxim of “treat others as you want to be treated” has held fast, for as she continues: “I was brought up to treat everybody with respect because we are all God’s kids. He didn’t make any junk. We may have made junk out of our own lives but he didn’t make junk. I’m not going to be naive enough to believe that everybody loved me being on campus [at Appalachian] but they respected me.”
Beane states that she was never afraid at Appalachian’s campus, and she delights in relating the incident responsible for her feeling that way: “Appalachian’s marching band had to play at Catawba College in Salisbury, NC, for a homecoming game, and I’m the only Black in the band. We stopped somewhere to eat; I cannot tell you where, but it was way, way out in the country. Remember this is the 1960’s, and there weren’t any such things as Burger Kings or McDonalds—they didn’t exist. We sat down 150—200 students in the marching band, at individual tables. The waiter came around and gave everybody their menu but me. He gave everybody their cutlery and glass of water but me. He asked everybody at the table what they wanted to order except for me. One of our band members spoke up and said ‘She’s part of your band, too. Why aren’t you waiting on her?’ The waiter said, ‘We don’t wait on niggers in here.’ You could have heard a pin drop; it was so quiet.
When those words came out of that waiter’s mouth, every student in the band stood up and walked out of the door, got on the bus, and we all came back hungry. I don’t really remember my reaction. Seems like I just hung my head. I didn’t cry. Then when everyone stood up, I didn’t know what they were doing. I had no idea they were doing that for me.
When I think about it now, I want to cry. The way the world is going now, people speak before they know. There is a lot of good in people and just too much good to let go like that. You need to give everybody a chance because you don’t know what good you are missing. You don’t know what kind of bad day someone else has had. You don’t know what they’ve come from. That’s what I mean when I say that it is nowhere near about color. You treat others the way you would want to be treated, and not go around doing this and that just because of color.”
Beane was fortunate enough to find an inclusive community in Appalachian State University’s marching band. Any prejudices that band members previously held must have been dispelled by spending time with Beane as a member of the band: so much so that they stood as a unit to object to the waiter’s treatment of her. As Beane states: “Although I was homesick [at Appalachian], I was never afraid as long as I lived on campus. I knew that if nobody else in that college cared for me, my band cared about me. They were beautiful. They did that for me. That was the biggest hug I’d ever gotten in my life, ever. Now, you think I didn’t love App? I love App. I recommend it to everybody. I mean I just tell them, ‘Go!’”