When two Black student leaders from different eras came together to talk about their experiences, they were struck by how much has changed — and how much work remains to be done.
Written by Bill Krueger | Illustrations by Sharon Volpe
It’s been five decades since Eric Moore ’70 graduated from NC State, but he shares some common ground with Melanie Flowers, a senior communication major from Cary, N.C. They are both trailblazers — Moore was the first Black student at NC State to be elected president of the Student Senate and, earlier this year, Flowers became the first Black woman to be elected student body president. Moore was a student during the civil rights movement, and a sophomore when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tenn., in April 1968. Flowers was finishing her junior year when George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, reigniting the Black Lives Matter movement.
NC State magazine brought Moore and Flowers together in a Zoom call in August to talk about campus life — then and now — and the continuing fight against racism. Moore, 71, is a former college professor and founder of a website that chronicles sports at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He lives in Raleigh. Flowers, 21, transferred to NC State from Western Carolina University and was active in the Inter-Residence Council before she was elected student body president.
Welcome to Campus
Q: What were your first days at NC State like?
Moore: We came in with our armor up. We weren’t expecting open arms and, “Come on in, let’s have some coffee together,” kind of behavior. I stayed in Sullivan dorm. One of my welcoming notes that appeared on our door . . . said “SPONGE is out to get you.” There was a pretty good network of Black students on campus, so we went to see some of the upperclassmen, and said, “Hey, guys, we just got this note on our door that says, ‘SPONGE is out to get you.’ Can you explain what that was about?” They laughed and said, “SPONGE stands for the Society for the Prevention of N-word Getting Everything.” So they said, “I wouldn’t worry about it.” That was just part of my welcome to NC State.
Many of those who were trying to make us feel unwelcome were anonymous. You never got to see a face. I try to be a friendly kind of guy, but one of the things that hit me very early on is, I’m walking down the sidewalk, I’m looking at somebody, about to acknowledge them, “Hello, how are you doing?” and they’re looking literally right through me, as if I didn’t exist.
Walking by Bragaw Hall, you might have certain epithets hurled at you from afar. But we were there to get an education. We were there to do whatever we could to succeed, because we realized how we were being judged was going to have an impact on those who followed us.
Flowers: My experience is completely different than that. Wow.
Walking to class, I never looked behind my back for anything like that.
That’s awful. I know that there are other Black students who probably have had the unfortunate experiences of really just being looked through. But I’ve been fortunate to not have that as blatant as Eric mentioned.
Q: Are you (or were you) conscious of being Black on campus?
Flowers: These days, I’m very conscious that I’m Black. It can be burdening at times, but it’s typically not a bad feeling. There have been other moments outside of this year that I felt Black in a negative way.
One incident where I was hyper aware of the fact that I was the only Black person in the room: I was at a conference and there was a speaker giving the opening address. She talked about bringing your entire self to the workplace — your personality, your work ethic, your identities, all of that. I felt that was incredibly empowering, and I resonated with it deeply. But the organization I was attending the conference with didn’t feel that way; there were a lot of people who questioned the validity of the content. In that moment, I looked around and I realized I’m the only person who has to think about bringing my entire self into a meeting or an interview or a job.
Moore: We had no doubt from the day we hit campus that we were Black. We were reminded of it on a regular basis. There were little microaggressions, as they’ve now been called, that you would face.
And we knew they were coming, so we just let it bounce off and keep on doing what we were doing. One of my math instructors was a very tough guy. But he would do certain things to imply that you weren’t smart enough to do things in the class because — and the implication was — of where you came from. But when the microaggressions came, I would tend to ignore them — you know, put up the shield, reflect it, and just keep on going about my business. You’re stuck with us for as long as both of us are here, so you might as well get used to it.
Q: Melanie, do you feel those microaggressions on campus?
Flowers: Definitely. But I think they’ve gotten more complex and nuanced. For example, Black hair is such a thing. And I have Sisterlocks. They’re a form of dreadlocks. Just the questions about hair, it’s probably the most common microaggression I interact with, asking if it’s real, if it’s not, and if it can be touched — a lot of questions that white folks don’t get asked.
Black Faculty Matter
Q: Have you had (or did you have) many Black professors?
Flowers: I’ve never had a Black professor at NC State.
Moore: The only Black professor that I knew of was Augustus Witherspoon. I did not have him in class because he was, I think, in the biology department. But no, I never had any Black professors during my time at NC State.
Q: Does that matter?
Flowers: I would say it matters significantly. I was very fortunate to have a Black adviser when I was in the Inter-Residence Council.
Throughout the year, she was such a support for me, and I was able to talk about how my day was going so much more openly. Things like the hair microaggression or interactions with other Black students, you can’t always talk about that with a white adviser. There are just moments where I can go a little bit deeper with a Black mentor than you can with a white mentor.
Moore: I’ve been on the other side, because I was on the faculty at Ohio University and was the only Black member of the faculty there.
And often, once the word got out, “Oh, there’s a Black guy teaching classes in the Communications Department,” my door all of the sudden began to fill up. I always understood that and never would shoo a student away.
Finding Their Place as Leaders
Q: Talk about your experiences running for student government positions.
Flowers: So, I made the decision to run, I think, maybe in November. It was about that time that I talked to my adviser for the Inter-Residence Council, and she asked me if I thought NC State was ready to have their first Black female student body president. I hadn’t really thought about that, but my immediate answer was, “I have to believe that the campus is.” Again, Eric’s day-to-day experience of being a Black student and mine look completely different. So there wasn’t that fear every single day. As we got closer to the election, I’d gone back and forth on whether I wanted to share that I’d be the first or not. On the last day of Black History Month, I made a post naming some of the other first Black student leaders on campus. Eric, I didn’t know your story, so you were not a part of it — my apologies. But Kevin Howell [the first Black student body president] was on there. Jackie Gonzalez, who’s the first Latinx student body president. Jenny Chang, the first Asian student body president. Nicole Teague, the first Black female student body vice president. I ended the post saying that their legacy is a part of mine if I win this. It was a really great point of reflection, kind of telling myself that I think NC State is ready.
Moore: I took the role as a student senator very seriously, and others began to observe, “This guy is taking this kind of seriously.” It wasn’t the Black guy, it was just that guy over there that happens to be Black making these points. [As a result, Moore was recruited by other senators to run for president of the Student Senate.] At the time, I was working at WKNC, which was next door to the Technician.
George Patton was the editor of the Technician, and he and I made an agreement that my picture would not appear in the Technician until after the election. We both knew if my picture came up there would be a lot of anti-Eric Moore votes being cast. The name “Eric Moore” didn’t have an ethnic connotation, so people didn’t really know what I looked like.
Flowers: Three or four weeks after I was sworn in, the Free Expression Tunnel got painted with the N-word everywhere. And some of it was like, “Kill, die”— all of that. And I got the call from somebody in the chancellor’s office. This is a few weeks into COVID, and so a lot of stores are closed down, and I’m not sure where I’m going to find spray paint. So I start driving towards Raleigh. I go to Home Depot. Things don’t work out there. I end up at Target, where I’m able to buy some spray paint. I get to campus, and I call two of my friends who are staying on campus to come with me, and we get to the tunnel, and it’s everywhere. And it’s big, and it’s a lot more than I’d been told. So we covered the tunnel in all 14 places. And then I went around campus and looked at the Nubian Message’s news boxes because they’ve gotten vandalized a lot in the past, and the one near the tunnel had the N-word on it. So I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a campus-wide attack.
The Free Expression Tunnel has been a very interesting home base for free speech and for the movement because now there’s a lot of Black Lives Matter murals in the tunnel. And yet I get kind of tense when I walk through, and I’m definitely on the lookout for things because I know how harmful it can be for the Black community and other marginalized communities on campus.
Hoping for Change
Q: Let’s talk about what’s been going on with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Flowers: I’ve been really impressed with the activism that’s taken place, and a lot of that has fortunately spread to campus. In Raleigh, there were protests downtown every day for about two weeks, and then people were camping out in front of the Governor’s Mansion. I was fortunate enough to be able to go for about a week and a half, every night. I got to see Raleigh get angry at what was going on, and that was heartening, to know that there were allies of different identities who were willing to go out and get tear gassed, get sweaty and kind of just get tired. A lot of students were there. And so it was great to know that the student body was getting mobilized and active in this. It’s very empowering.
Moore: I come from an environment that would say Black lives have always mattered, and it’s now time for some folks to understand that.
As Melanie has said, it’s good to see such a diverse group of people protesting, because before it was just primarily Black folk. And it’s good to see young people, who are obviously upset at how inequities have caused some of the conditions that we’re dealing with. In some cases, the media has gotten woke — to use a term — at some of the inequities that have taken place. Stuff that we’ve already known about, but others didn’t realize.
Q: Are you optimistic that positive change will come from this?
Flowers: I want to hear Eric’s answer.
Moore: I’ve seen a lot of talk. A lot of it is going to depend on local action. We’re not going to have a national solution. Each action that occurs in a particular community is really going to be the result of the local activists continuing to push the button. Or as John Lewis would say, just some good trouble.
Flowers: Just having the opportunity to be a part of meetings with administrators and Chancellor Woodson and other Black student leaders, I am confident in the actions that are being taken. It’s unfortunate it’s taken up to this point for some of these ideas to be implemented. But we’re at a point where there is an unignorable demonstrated need for a lot of these resources. And so campus is definitely taking steps, and we’re in a position where if steps aren’t being taken, students are going to go to A&T or Fayetteville State or Elizabeth City State or NCCU, anywhere but a PWI [Predominantly White Institution].
Q: Eric, are you disappointed that Melanie and her generation are still wrestling with some of the same issues your generation was dealing with when you were in school?
Moore: I’m not surprised, to be honest with you, because there is a lot of privilege that people want to protect. And once they protect that privilege, or once they imagine what happens if they lose that privilege, they can be very, very irrational in some of their behaviors.
So for it to come to this point, I am optimistic, but I still need to see more.
Q: Melanie, looking back, the civil rights movement could feel like ancient history to you. Do you feel like progress has been made since those days?
Flowers: I think this conversation has been a great indicator for me that progress has definitely been made. I mean, there are a lot of issues, but I don’t look behind my back when I’m walking, for my own safety. If it’s nighttime, maybe, but that’s just because I’m a woman on campus. I think, of course, there are still systems of racism that we’re continuing to operate in and having to change and unlearn. But there has been progress made just in what my day-to-day experience is and what Eric’s was. They seem like two completely different NC States.
Editor’s Note: The transcript of their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This story appears in the fall 2020 issue of NC State magazine. Members receive the award-winning publication in their mailboxes every quarter.