Deacon Profile: Beth Hopkins

Beth Hopkins is the director of outreach and a professor of practice at the Wake Forest University School of Law as well as a professor of practice in the department of history. Hopkins attended Wake Forest University from 1969-1973, graduating cum laude with a B.A. She went on to obtain her J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary.

Hopkins, prior to serving as a professor, was an assistant Attorney General for the state of Virginia, an assistant United States Attorney for the United States Department of Justice and Of Counsel to the Wake Forest University Legal Department. Additionally, she has worked with civil rights and legal organizations such as the American Bar Association and the United Negro College Fund.

Meenu Krishnan/Old Gold & Black

What made you consider attending Wake Forest during high school?

I had a very dear friend that went here. I was planning to go to Reed College out in Oregon, but I said to myself ‘I need to find a place closer to home.’ So, I started looking at historically black colleges. My friend said you must come to Wake Forest. There are not many black students yet but it’s a place where we can make a change. At the time, I got a partial academic scholarship. It was less than four hours from home plus I had friends that already went here. With all that in mind, I decided to come to Wake Forest.

What were some of the challenges you faced as a black student?

When I came to Wake Forest in 1969, I felt like I was fully prepared to confront discrimination head on. It was a daunting challenge, but it wasn’t going to deter me. Everything at home was confrontational,  but here it was more subtle. I’ll never forget a chemistry professor who told my husband, my boyfriend at the time, ‘You must have cheated on this test because a black football player could never get this grade in my class.’

There were some other things that would happen, like I would get a B- on a paper that my parents, who were educated, clearly felt it deserved more. Papers are subjective, so professors could get away with that stuff. It’s very hard to prove that kind of racism. On the other end, there were a few professors that befriended us, looked out for us and guided us through Wake Forest. What really made me stay here was who was then president of the university, James Ralph Scales. He was a compassionate humanitarian. He was determined to treat people fairly and for his administration to treat people fairly.

There were faculty that didn’t go along with him, but at least he set the tone. We learned that black students shouldn’t take certain professors. Those that did suffered. There were only 15 black students my freshman year. With Scales at the helm, we felt protected and no matter what happened, we knew we would get a fair shake. That was pivotal for our decision to stay.

At the time, there were certainly double standard toward blacks and females. How do you think your experience differed as a black female student?

Black athletes were always valued. In terms of the student-to-student relationships, they were revered. We were not as black females. We were sort of a mystery to them. We were looked at sometimes with suspicion. But you cannot give in to how people perceive you. You have to be comfortable about where you are and what you intend to accomplish. Our goal was to finish Wake Forest with good grades, and we did.

How is your generation different from the current generation of black students?

Those people were trailblazers. I think that’s what we have to be called because we opened up a lot of doors. We were able to do it because of our fraternity of spirit. What we African Americans have to do now is recapture that spirit. The goal is to come together, and continue to move forward.

There is still this subtle segregation in how students sit together in the Pit. To what do you attribute this to? Why do you think the trend is much stronger among black athletes as opposed to all black students?

Back then, we sat together to show that we were unified. Sitting together in the cafeteria was one way to do it. I’m just surprised it still happens. One of the reasons is that the black athletes are protecting their unity too. You and I know that there is a false perception on this campus that black athletes just don’t want to work. I haven’t found that to be true in my classes. Although, that may be because my reputation is that I’ll stick it to you regardless of race.

How do you think that life for students on campus is changing?

Things are moving in a positive direction. I am very pleased with the movement of cultural diversity on this campus, but we still have a lot of work to do, particularly with the sprinkling of people of color in management position. We still need to work on that diligently.

You were denied admission to the Wake Forest School of Law because you were a black female and the law school “had enough” of them. How did this shape your law school experience and subsequent return to the university? 

It all just came together. All my friends who knew the story asked, “What are you doing over there?”

But one has to move on. By not going to the Wake Forest School of Law, I was able to go William and Mary. It gave me opportunity to reclaim my Virginia residency and go to a law school for $500 a semester. From there, I went to a civil rights firm run by the civil rights icon Oliver Hill.

I became a part of history by working in Virginia and probably I would not have had that same experience if I went to law school here.

You just never know what is in store for you. Sometimes, you just have to go with plan B, and it can turn out better than plan A.

What are the top things you want to see changed at this university in terms of racial issues?

I would like to see a greater movement towards less homogenous departments. There are still departments here that have never hired a black person.

I would also like to see blacks in higher decision making positions. We’ve never had a black vice president.

We’ve been first in a lot of stuff. We had the first black quarterback in the ACC and the first black football coach in the ACC. If we can do that athletically, we can do that academically.

It’s time to put some weight behind the talk to make this a more diverse university.