By Robert F. Darden
Professor of journalism, public relations and new media
On a stormy day in August 2017, I stood by the gravestone of Dr. Vivienne Lucille Malone-Mayes, the first full-time African American professor hired at Baylor University. I was at Waco’s historic Greenwood Cemetery, a forgotten, wind-swept triangle of land hidden between Interstate 35 and Highway 77.
In that moment, I saw Dr. Malone-Mayes –– who could call such an imposing figure “Vivienne”? –– on the Baylor campus in 1972. I was a freshman, having grown up in the U.S. Air Force, which was integrated from its founding. Vivienne was one of the few blacks on the campus then, outside of the athletic teams. I still remember seeing her walking towards Sid Richardson, tall, every hair in place, beautiful and –– seemingly –– terribly, terribly alone.
And in that moment, by that damaged tombstone, despite the nearby graves of family and friends, Vivienne Malone-Mayes seemed alone once more.
Vivienne recorded several hours of interviews for the Baylor Institute for Oral History in 1987, just a few years before her untimely death in 1995. The stories Vivienne tells are often bittersweet, tinged in pain and loss and, sometimes, contain a palpable sense of having spent a life apart. She was the beloved daughter of a relatively well-to-do African American family, at least by the Jim Crow standards of Waco in the 1930s and ’40s. Her family’s relative affluence made her a target of other children. Even teachers in the all-black schools she attended, she recalled, took delight in singling her out, embarrassing her.
Vivienne’s skin color –– not her grades –– kept her out of Baylor University in 1952. She instead attended Fisk University. When she applied to Baylor for a master’s degree in 1961, the University turned her down. Her daughter Patsyanne Wheeler still has the rejection letter (reprinted below).
From Fisk, she taught for a time at Paul Quinn College in Waco before eventually, grudgingly being accepted in the Ph.D. program in mathematics at the University of Texas. Vivienne’s memories of UT in the late 1950s and early ’60s are difficult to listen to –– professors who wouldn’t accept her in their classes, fellow students who wouldn’t talk to or sit by her. She couldn’t eat or live or park on campus. She couldn’t participate in extracurricular activities. She could never escape the fact that she was black and unwelcome and, again, always, always someone who stood apart. At one point in the recordings, she softly tells her interviewer, “But you get used to being alone.”
Patsy told me that while the family lived in Austin, the two would talk about their days: “She’d say, ‘A group went to the café today to eat –– and didn’t invite me.’ ‘But why not?’ I’d ask. ‘There are people who are just not nice,’ she’d say, ‘and there are people who are so small-minded that they are threatened by everything.’ Of course she was hurt. But she rose above it.”
In 1966, after she graduated with honors from UT, President Abner McCall offered her a position in the Baylor math department. Dr. Vivienne Malone-Mayes would become a significant, transcendent figure both on the campus and nationally, an inspiration not just for women and African Americans, but also for all math students everywhere.
I called Dr. Steve Gardner that afternoon in August and together we tracked down Alex and Patsyanne Wheeler. With their blessing, I went to Dr. Lance Littlejohn, chair of Baylor’s mathematics department. Lance immediately said, “Yes, whatever it takes.” We involved Dean Lee Nordt and Associate Dean Kim Kellison from the College of Arts & Sciences –– both of whom enthusiastically joined our quest to create a significant memorial to Vivienne’s courage and legacy.
Lance commissioned a black marble bust of Vivienne and began fundraising for a display case for the sun-lit atrium on the third floor of Sid Richardson, outside the math department, an area perpetually full of students. An unveiling ceremony is planned for February 2019 and friends, colleagues, sorority sisters and former students of Vivienne Malone-Mayes will be invited to attend and celebrate this singular life.
As for long-neglected Greenwood, the City of Waco announced an ambitious plan in April 2018 to finally restore the city’s historic African American cemetery, including markers for the host of significant graves in its grounds.
It’s all a beginning…well-deserved honors for a life well-lived.
When word spread that Baylor had broken the color barrier and hired Vivienne, reporters approached Waco civil rights activist and civic leader Jeffie Allen Conner for a comment. Conner smiled and said, “Yes, isn’t that a great blessing for Baylor?”
And it was.
Though no one could yet know how great a blessing.
This article was published in the Fall 2018 issue of Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine, which is available in full here. For a detailed essay on the life of Dr. Vivienne Malone-Mayes, see Lane Murphy’s article “A Remarkable Legacy” in the Spring 2018 issue of Baylor Magazine.
Family photos and documents are provided courtesy of Patsyanne Wheeler. Other photos are courtesy of The Texas Collection at Baylor and Randy Fiedler.