As the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics celebrates the 100-year anniversary of business education at UD, the Breaking Barriers blog series tells the stories of the first individuals from underrepresented groups to join the Lerner College in key roles.
William Majett Jr., who graduated from the Lerner College in 1965 as UD’s first African-American business graduate, blazed a trail for generations of students after him. In this interview, we learn more about William’s story in his own words:
What made you decide to attend UD and major in business?
I always was interested in business. I grew up on Bennett Street on Wilmington’s East Side, about 10 blocks from downtown Wilmington. When I went to the corner of 10th and Bennett streets, I could look up and see the downtown buildings, and I was always impressed by that. I would go uptown; I would walk around and look, see the people going into the office buildings, working in the offices.
Coming from the East Side, we didn’t have, at that time, many Black folk working in offices. We were mostly laborers or blue collar. But I was always interested in working in an office and going into business.
After graduating from high school I applied to several colleges… but the University of Delaware came through with a Delaware Right to Education grant. So that was really the main reason why I chose the University, because of the financial package that they offered.
Once you got to the University, what were your first impressions? Did that change over time?
I realized that the University was a very good school in terms of its educational programs and what it offered; the business program was really good. But back then, the University was segregated along racial lines. My first dorm was Sharp Hall, and the dorms were segregated.
I had no individual problems with anybody, no name-calling or any of that kind of stuff. But it was segregated. And there were just a handful of Blacks back then that were living on campus… So there was definitely racial discrimination. The fraternities and sororities were segregated. Deer Park was segregated; we couldn’t go into the Deer Park. Across the tracks from Deer Park was the Black community, and we’d go there for church or for social activities. But like I say, the University was really not socially friendly for Black students.
What were your experiences like in the College of Business specifically?
I think the grades I received and the treatment I got in classes was fair. I wasn’t very outspoken in terms of class participation, because I was kind of on the shy side. But I felt that I was not discriminated against in any way.
My faculty advisor was Dr. Charles Lanier. He was in the economics department, and I remember him for his warm and relaxed demeanor. He was very good in terms of advising me on the proper academic path to pursue.
But I struggled at first. I was coming from high school, where I was in the Honor Society, but going into college it was really tough academically. Plus being the only Black in the business school, I felt, put added pressure on me to succeed.
That must have been a difficult transition. I’m glad that you didn’t feel you experienced personal disrespect on a one-on-one basis.
I don’t think that I had any kind of personal problems in terms of relating with students of other cultures or anything like that. Everybody was concerned about surviving the challenges of college life. Everybody I met was friendly and excited about the four years that lay ahead.
Joe Biden and I were in the same graduating class, he in arts and sciences and I in business school. We met in one of our freshman classes and began talking about college life and other issues and became friends. That friendship continues to this day.
What other experiences defined your time at UD and the business college?
Listen to these dates: I told my parents on Thursday night, November 21st of ‘63, that I was going to transfer and go to a technical college, and maybe go back to Delaware later on. I was struggling academically, and I was getting kind of discouraged. The college work was getting tougher and tougher.
So that Friday morning, November 22nd 1963, I went to Hullihen Hall to try and put my paperwork in. And nobody was there. They said, “Come back after lunch.”
So I went to my statistics class in Sharp Lab at about 12:00 on Friday, November 22nd, 1963. A fellow student busted in the room and said, “President Kennedy was shot in the head.” That’s how he put it, shot in the head. And we were all flabbergasted.
He was the first president who was assassinated since Abraham Lincoln. My statistics class, that room overlooked Delaware Avenue, and the American flag out there on campus in the center of the green. We saw them lower the flag to half-mast.
And so I never did go back to Hullihen Hall that afternoon. I just decided to stay the course and continue at UD.
What was it about the Kennedy assassination that made you decide to continue pursuing your degree?
Eight days before, President Kennedy came to dedicate the opening of I-95 between Maryland and Delaware. I had a ’55 Ford, so I drove down Elkton Road… and saw President Kennedy come out. He was a big guy, six-two or three, he had his topcoat on, no hat, smiling.
President Kennedy talked so much about young people in our country, how we should ask not what we should do for ourselves, but what we should do for our country, always encouraging young people to do their best. He was young himself, at that time. And seeing him in person, and then hearing about the assassination, was so horrific.
And so I said, “Well, I’m going to just stay where I am. I’m gonna try to live out what he was about, and try to stick it out.”
And that’s what I did. After President Kennedy’s assassination, I really became more focused, and I was getting better grades in my upper classes. I enjoyed the work, as I was getting more into the business courses.
That’s incredible. What was your graduation like?
We were the last graduating class to graduate on The Green, in front of Memorial Hall… Maybe 3-400 of us, and each one of us marched up on the stage and received our degrees. My mother and father were there, and my cousin was there. It was a very good feeling to know that I was there to get my degree.
I graduated that Sunday in June ’65, and a few days later I boarded a bus to go to Fort Knox in Louisville, Kentucky to begin serving my military obligation. I spent a total of six years to fulfill my active and reserve duty.
When I came back, I almost immediately got a job with DuPont. I was hired on and stayed with the company my entire professional career. I retired as a senior accounting analyst after 36 years of service.
How has your relationship with UD developed since graduation?
My youngest daughter graduated from Delaware in ’97. She graduated in criminal justice; she’s a paralegal. And so, as a former alumnus, I marched with her class at graduation.
I’m living in Wilmington, so I’m on the University campus for football games, for lectures. I drive down just to walk around, go to Morris Library. I participated in a couple of research studies at Star Campus, and when they had our class’s 50th anniversary I marched again at graduation. The University gave us a gold star for being 50-year alumni.
Have you noticed any changes at UD and the business college over the years?
It has changed dramatically, and it is great to see. ALL students now have the opportunity to fully participate in all academic and social functions at the University.
But I think the University is still wanting to raise the percentage of minority students up in terms of African Americans, because still, it’s relatively low compared to the total population. They’re still trying to move in that direction, and President Assanis seems to be doing very well in trying to continue to move that effort forward. So there’s been a lot of progress, but there’s still more to do.
The college has really changed. I was glad to see the physical facilities continue to improve from Robinson Hall to Purnell Hall to Lerner Hall. It was also great to see the school really advance in terms of the business program.
What does that feel like to be the first, to be a pioneer?
It feels like the way was made possible for other culturally diverse students to have an opportunity to get a quality education in the school of business. The barrier has been broken so I hope more of these students will take advantage of a great opportunity at the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.