Concord University's first African American student found

Oct 15, 2013

A campus based organization at Concord University tracked down the first African American student to attend the school. The Black Student Union invited Billy Owens to Athens earlier this month. Owens saw discrimination in his day, but not at the University.   

Credit Courtesy Concord University

  It started after sophomore and Black Student Union president James Riley heard the legend of Billy Owens from faculty advisors on campus. Apparently, they had searched for Owens in the past with no luck.

“Have you ever heard of the first black student to attend Concord," Riley explained, "and we said, 'no we never searched for him.' So he told us that he was out there and that if we find the information he would help try to find him."

"He gave us a little bit of information.  We looked him up in the library. We found his picture and then eventually Mrs. Terri Philpott our advisor, she was able to locate him in the banner system here at Concord."

Owens made history in 1954 when he enrolled as the first African American student and athlete when he joined the football team.

“It became OK,” he said, "except when I joined the football team."

"Then I had some problems traveling with the football team that I couldn’t stay in the hotels that they stayed in. They had to put me in other places or something to that nature."

"Some of the other teams that we played at times made some, made some negative speeches and things as towards me but it didn’t bother me because I was there to play football and I wasn’t afraid of them and I would just tell them you know that I says, 'well I’m here because I’m going to run over you.”

Owens grew up in Giatto, in Mercer County where his father worked as a coal miner.

He remembers the town had mostly blacks, with limited segregation. But Owens says in neighboring Matoaka things were different and segregation was enforced.

“That’s the only movie place we could go to if we wanted to go to a movie," Owens said. "We couldn’t sit where we wanted to. We had a special area where we had to sit."

“Our parents told us how to react to certain things like that. We got to the point where we knew that what is was for life for us. We couldn’t do certain things. We couldn’t go to certain lunch places to get something we couldn’t go inside and sit at the counter or anything like that we had to go around and go to a window a special place like that we had to go to.”

But that’s not what Owens found at Concord. Most of the games didn’t require overnight trips … and the closer to Concord he stayed the better.

“What inspired me so much because of how friendly they were with me," he said, "we were all friends and at the times we were together and all the time and while I was here at Concord as quietly as it was I never realized that I was different because I never heard anything negative or anything of that nature.”

Owens says he never thought of his time at Concord as historical, until he got the phone call from the Black Student Union.

"They were looking for me yea,” he said. “They knew it was me but they didn’t know where I was."

Billy Owens, the first African American student athlete at Concord University returned to Athens for a visit.
Credit Courtesy Concord University

"When they contacted me I didn’t know it was going to come to all of this to what it is now. I was proud of them I thanked them after I got here. They called me and they were telling me all that they wanted to, we want to do this, we want to do that, we want to do this for you, I didn’t feel hey, I didn’t need all that. But that’s what they wanted.”

Student Union President James Riley was surprised to hear what Owens said about his experience at Concord.

“I was expecting to hear him say that he went through a lot of tough times," Riley said. "In fact he actually said that he didn’t experience any type of negativity at Concord. The players were great the coaching staff was great the administrators were great he didn’t experience any forms of racism while he was here. The only for m of racism that he experienced that he told was when he went to away games.”

Riley is thankful that Owens helped  open HIS door to a college education.

"It was a humongous honor," he said. "I had never been able to speak to someone who was a forerunner for students like me. Without him taking that step out I may not be here at Concord so it was such an honor to talk to him and meet his family and to learn about what he went through while he was at this school."

Owens majored in biology and physical education at Concord and was a member of the Class of 1958. He served in the Air Force during the Korean War. He worked for 34 years in engineering at a hospital in New York until he retired in 2006.