“The Environment was Just Ice”: Desegregating the University of North Carolina School of Pharmacy

Editor’s Note: In honor of Black History Month, today’s post about the desegregation of the University of North Carolina School of Pharmacy comes from Christian Brown, a PharmD candidate at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, and Ben Urick, an Assistant Professor in the Center for Medical Optimization at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

William Wicker and Mona Boston Reddick
William Wicker and Mona Boston Reddick, two of the first Black students at the UNC School of Pharmacy. Images from the 1965 UNC Yackety Yack yearbook and the April 8, 1967, issue of the Carolina Journal of Pharmacy.

When thinking about school desegregation, many picture 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, flanked by federal marshals and ascending the steps of her New Orleans elementary school in 1960. Others may think of the Little Rock Nine, who desegregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957 under the watchful eye of the 101st Airborne Division.

On the campuses of public colleges and universities around the South, though, many of the first Black students were graduate and professional students who successfully challenged the color line and gained admission to previously segregated state-sponsored programs as early as the 1930s. Although some of this history is well-known—particularly about the desegregation of law schools—the desegregation of other types of professional schools has not received much scholarly attention.

The history of the color line at Southern schools and colleges of pharmacy has been particularly understudied. Recognizing this gap in the research, we decided to investigate the history of our own institution, the University of North Carolina Eshelman School of Pharmacy. We recently began the UNC Pharmacy Desegregation Oral History Project (in partnership with the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy) to collect and record the experiences of the first Black students at the UNC School of Pharmacy. We hope to connect their stories to current pursuits of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the School and in the profession at large. To date, we have successfully interviewed two of the School’s earliest Black graduates, and we’re excited to share some of our preliminary findings.

The Color Line at the UNC School of Pharmacy

Like other Southern schools, the University of North Carolina maintained a strictly segregated campus in the early twentieth century, but the color line did not go unchallenged. In 1933, in fact, the UNC School of Pharmacy was the target of one of the first lawsuits opposing segregation in higher education, Hocutt v. Wilson. Thomas R. Hocutt, a student at the North Carolina College for Negroes (NCCN)—now North Carolina Central University—applied to the UNC School of Pharmacy but was denied admission based on his race. With support from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), two lawyers filed suit on behalf of Hocutt, leveraging his ambition to become a pharmacist as a test case against the system of educational segregation in North Carolina.

Thomas Raymond Hocutt
Thomas Raymond Hocutt as pictured in the Chicago Defender, April 22, 1933.

In a reflection of complicated 1930s race relations, however, the Hocutt case was not broadly supported by the local NAACP chapter or by NCCN leadership. Under pressure from the White establishment, the president of NCCN refused to release Hocutt’s official transcript, a technicality which thwarted the case. The UNC School of Pharmacy would remain segregated for nearly thirty more years.

Although the NAACP lost in Hocutt, Thurgood Marshall used papers from the case to prepare his successful legal challenge in Murray v. Pearson, which desegregated the University of Maryland School of Law in 1936. The NAACP’s success in Murray was followed by a similar victory against the University of Missouri School of Law in 1938. These legal precedents initiated a cascade of lawsuits, ultimately leading to the unanimous 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board, which ruled segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional.

Desegregating the UNC School of Pharmacy

The University of North Carolina did not admit its first Black student until 1951, the result of legal action by the NAACP to desegregate the UNC School of Law. The first Black medical student matriculated the same year, but UNC did not enroll its first Black undergraduate students until 1955. The history of these students is reasonably well-documented, but much less is known about desegregation at the UNC School of Pharmacy beyond the Hocutt case. Below are summaries about two of the earliest Black graduates of the UNC School of Pharmacy obtained as a part of the UNC Pharmacy Desegregation Oral History Project. We hope to soon make the complete interviews available to researchers.

William Wicker: The First Black Student at the UNC School of Pharmacy

William Wicker in 1964
William Wicker in the 1964 UNC Yackety Yack yearbook.

William Wicker grew up in a tight-knit, supportive, segregated neighborhood in Forsyth County, North Carolina, during the 1950s and 60s. Having worked at a pharmacy since he was 12, he knew he wanted to pursue pharmacy after high school. In 1962, he applied to the UNC School of Pharmacy expecting to be rejected due to his race and instead to receive a scholarship for out-of-state education. To his surprise, he was accepted because, in his words: “My skin was fair, and my hair was okay, and they didn’t really know I was Black until I got there.”

Wicker’s experiences in class reflected his status as an “uninvited” student: “I know that the faculty…was just not ready for me. I tried my best, but… the environment was just ice.” He and many other Black undergraduates at the time were told by administrators that they would never make it and would never graduate from the university.

Listen to Wiliam Wicker discuss the unwelcoming environment at the UNC School of Pharmacy. In this clip (1 minute, 3 seconds), he describes being told that he “is sitting in a white kid’s seat.” Source: Oral History interview Christian Brown, et al, with William Wicker on December 30, 2020.

In either 1965 or 1966, the cold environment and lack of support caused him to take a hiatus from the pharmacy program:

“I was determined to do it, but I just couldn’t push it… I knew I was going to be a pharmacist, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And so, I worked. I worked every day with that thought in mind. Across the front of my desk, I put what I intended to achieve and where I intended to go every day. And every day I worked to try to make it happen.”

Wicker returned to campus about 1970 and found the pharmacy program to be far more welcoming. A new dean and many new faculty members had arrived, changing the culture of the school substantially. Additionally, in the years since his departure, other Black students—including the first Black graduate Mona (Boston) Reddick—had attended the School of Pharmacy. After receiving his Bachelor of Pharmacy in 1972, Wicker bought and managed an independent pharmacy for 15 years until it was purchased by a chain. He currently practices in Greensboro, North Carolina, and is excited to be delivering COVID-19 vaccinations.

Mona (Boston) Reddick: The First Black Graduate of the UNC School of Pharmacy

Mona Boston Reddick Graduation
Mona Boston graduation notice from the July 15, 1967, issue of The Carolinian.

Mona (Boston) Reddick was born and raised in an activist family outside Lillington, North Carolina. She first attended the Hampton Institute and transferred to UNC in 1965. According to her recollection of a conversation with the president of UNC, Reddick had been hand-selected by the University and School of Pharmacy administrators to be the first Black student to formally integrate the UNC School of Pharmacy. In contrast to Mr. Wicker’s experience, she recalls a warm welcome: 

“The Dean scheduled an appointment with me to come to the building at 11:00 AM. Much to my surprise, there were not police cars or marshals or people trying to protect the crowd, but there was a long sidewalk up to Beard Hall… I walked from sidewalk to the front door. This is what happened: the whole student body was lined up, on both sides of the sidewalk. I walked along, and they were friendly. When I got to the door, the Dean opened it and said, ‘Welcome to the school of pharmacy. I want you to remember that you are the first.’ And, we had a little discussion inside the building, and that was it. But, that was important to me. It was a complete surprise.”

Listen to Mona Boston Reddick discuss her father encouraging her to enroll at the UNC School of Pharmacy (1 minute, 26 seconds). Source: Oral History interview Christian Brown, et al, with Mona Boston Reddick on September 18, 2020.

Reddick enjoyed positive interactions with her classmates. Kappa Epsilon, the women’s pharmacy fraternity, offered Reddick membership, and she shared notes and tests with them. Relations with faculty were likewise generally positive, although she did note one instance of, what she perceived as, unfair grading.

After graduating from UNC in 1967, Reddick became the first Black pharmacy intern at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City and practiced for a short time in Washington, DC. Upon returning to Chapel Hill in the early 1970s, she worked at North Carolina Memorial Hospital where she used her experience from Mt. Sinai to help modernize the hospital’s pharmacy services. After being denied promotion to an official leadership position, Reddick accepted an instructorship at the UNC School of Pharmacy as Associate Director of the drug abuse program.

Reddick expressed a familiar duality about the impact of being Black on her career progression. In her words, being Black prompted her to excellence and carried a double-standard: “You can’t make the mistakes that an average person would make. In other words, I have to be better all-around in what I was doing.” But also, as a natural result of her determined and outgoing nature, “lots of times, I just forgot what color I was. Nobody reminded me.”

Reddick is currently retired and lives in Orange, New Jersey.

Conclusion and Future Directions

William Wicker and Mona Reddick provide two powerful examples of the Black experience at a Southern school of pharmacy. Much of the change Wicker observed between the early 1960s and early 1970s is reflected in Reddick’s experience. One source of this contrast seems to have stemmed from turnover within the School as the older generation of White Southern faculty retired, and younger professors—some from the North—took their place.

Despite a changing environment, however, the School remained overwhelmingly White with only eight Black students graduating from the UNC School of Pharmacy in the decade following 1967. The School eventually devoted resources to the recruitment of non-White students, and both Wicker and Reddick participated in these efforts.

Black enrollment, however, remained lackluster, and Wicker recalled that the professor charged with recruitment told him: “[Black people] really don’t have any problems, you’re your own problem, and you’re not doing enough to help yourself get along.” Wicker observed that his was ”like putting a fox in charge of the henhouse, when you have somebody doing recruiting that don’t really want to recruit.”

While efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion have certainly improved, the PharmD classes at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy remain predominantly White, with Black students comprising less than 10% of the average incoming class. It is our hope that, by illuminating the school’s history of desegregation and celebrating pioneers like William Wicker and Mona Reddick, we can learn from their experiences and improve current efforts to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment for all students at the School.


Reflection from Christian Brown: As a current student at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, I am personally indebted to the trailblazing of our first Black graduates. In collecting their stories, I see myself in their struggles, and I see struggles that I never had to face because of their sacrifices. I’m so honored that Mr. Wicker and Ms. Reddick have trusted us with their stories, and I am amazed that, through it all, they are still proud Tar Heels.

Christian Brown is a PharmD Candidate 2023 at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. She pursues pharmacy history as a hobby to improve her understanding of the trajectory of her future profession. Her clinical interests include deprescribing, polypharmacy, and geriatrics.


Reflection from Ben Urick:  As a faculty member at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, I recognize the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the school’s curriculum and culture. I look forward to incorporating the stories of the first Black graduates with the broader story of the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy as society continues to reconcile with the history of racism and segregation.

Dr. Ben Urick is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Medication Optimization at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. A historical hobbyist, he is particularly interested in changes to pharmacy practice and education during the 1950s and 1960s. His primary research focuses on the impact of pharmacy services on healthcare value and statistical methods for provider profiling.

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