1952 was a much different time than today. The civil rights movement was just beginning to pick up steam and segregation was still very real and very dangerous problems. A decision had not even been reached in Brown v. Board of Education and traditional white public schools were just starting to accept black students.
Despite all of this, a young black women from Pittsburgh decided that she wanted to pursue a higher education degree in physical education and she decided to go to, what was then called, Slippery Rock State College. That young girl was one Jennie Brown (nee Knox), now passed, and she was determine to take her outgoing personality and pursuit of education into Slippery Rock and come out with a degree.
While not Slippery Rock’s first black student, that would be Brown’s roommate Margie Walker (nee Byrd) in 1951, Brown was the second black student to come to Slippery Rock, joining the college in the fall of 1952.
Walker, now 83 years old, said that back then the administration had forced her and Brown live together, thinking they would be more comfortable living with other African Americans.
“They made us room together,” Walker said. “It was an interesting situation. They assigned us together, we had no choice. We were automatically put together.”
Being the first black student, Walker recalled that she faced quite a bit of prejudice from students, faculty and the community.
However, in a 1999 interview with The Rocket, Knox said that she had always felt welcomed at The Rock.
“There was a tradition to speak to everybody on campus, so I felt welcome,” Brown said at the time. “I think that, at the time, Slippery Rock State College was ahead of its time in terms of blatant racial attitude. I will not deny that there was prejudice, but it was not blatant.”
As a student, Brown was very involved. She studied both health and physical education and social studies while also serving as her freshman class treasurer, being a member of the Women’s Athletic Association Council (WAAC), the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and being a member of the women’s physical education club. Brown was also a member of the press club, who were responsible for printing the student newspaper back then, still called “The Rocket.”
As a member of WAAC, Brown tried to further female participation in athletics on campus.
WAAC’s slogan at the time was “A sport for every girl, a girl for every sport.” Articles from issues of The Rocket from the 1950’s depict Brown as a social leader on campus, participating in fraternity and sorority events, organizing snow balls fights on a campus snow day in 1954, taking part in setting up multiple dinner-dances for students; Brown did it all.
Walker recalled that Brown played many sports on campus and said she would sometimes go to watch Brown play. However for her first two years, Brown played exclusively on intramural or club teams on campus until, in 1955, she became Slippery Rock’s first ever black athlete joining the field hockey, then just called the “hockey” team.
While no statistics are available, Brown was included in team pictures in both the 1955 and 1956 hockey team pictures printed in the school yearbook.
After graduating in 1956, Brown got a teaching job in a Pittsburgh public school. She retired in 1996 and stayed in Pittsburgh until her death in March of 2014.
Perhaps without even knowing it, Brown had paved a way for inclusion in athletic at Slippery Rock. Now there are over 70 black student-athletes representing Slippery Rock University through sport perhaps none of whom would have that opportunity today if it were not for one girl from Pittsburgh in the early 1950’s who just wanted to get an education and have a good time while doing it.