CHESTERTOWN—Washington College lost a distinguished alumna and pioneer this week with the death of its first black female graduate. Patricia Godbolt White ’64 died Jan. 23 at age 72.
“Pat” Godbolt came to WC after making national news in her hometown of Norfolk, Va., as a member of “the Norfolk 17” – the brave African American students who in 1959 forced the local school board and Virginia’s governor to integrate the city’s secondary schools. Goldbolt White was one of six black students who dared to show up for classes at all-white Norview High School. She endured physical threats, taunts, and unfair treatment from racist teachers, but finished her senior year and enrolled at WC.
After graduating from WC with a Bachelor of Science in biology, she earned a master’s degree in Urban Studies from Norfolk State University, where she was the top honor graduate in her class. She built a career as a science teacher in the very school system she had helped integrate as a teenager. Godbolt White retired in 2007 having spent most of her 42 years of teaching at Booker T. Washington High School, where she chaired the science department.
A young Godbolt White pictured in The Virginian-Pilot, as part of a story on the Norfolk 17. In a talk she gave last May to students of Virginia Beach Middle School, where her son Lavell White is guidance director, Godbolt White shared stories of the bigotry she endured as a member of the Norfolk 17. She described the English teacher who gave her paper an F because she had capitalized one word incorrectly and who, as the National Honor Society advisor, denied Godbolt White membership and blamed it on a non-existent vote of the student members. She recalled the morning someone threw a knife at her on her way into the school building, and her graduation-day fear that someone would try to shoot her to prevent her becoming the first African American to graduate from a desegregated Virginia school.
At WC, Godbolt White immersed herself in her studies and in a host of extracurricular activities that included intramural sports, chorus, and the Student Education Association, which she served as president. Her freshman year, the only other African-American student on campus was a sophomore named Thomas Morris. Two more black undergraduates arrived in the next three years: Dale Patterson Adams class of 1965 and Marvin “Marty” Smith class of 1967.
Godbolt White won the Senior Women’s Athletic Award. During a panel discussion organized by the Black Student Alliance in 1999, Smith described Godbolt White as a mentor and big sister to him on campus. “But she kept me at arm’s length,” he added. “Pat and Dale told me on the day I met them that we were not going to ‘clump.’ I was going to have to make my own way as they had. So I did. I made friends with my classmates and my teammates. Friends I would keep for life. I’d be standing in one of these white clumps and Pat would walk by with her friends, nod at me and smile this great smile. She was a good teacher even then.”
Smith earned a doctoral degree in economics from Cornell and built a successful career at the Congressional Budget Office and the Federal Reserve. He is the only one of those first four black graduates still living. Patterson died in 2013 after a long career as a chemist, and Morris passed away in 1995, having spent 25 years as a math teacher in Baltimore.
Godbolt White served as the president of the Student Education Association during her senior year. In her talk to the Virginia Beach middle schoolers, Godbolt White said her college experience removed the “bitter taste” left from the mistreatment she endured in Norfolk schools. As an example of the healing friendships she formed, she recalled the night she joined some girlfriends from her dorm for a movie night in downtown Chestertown. Once they’d bought their tickets and gone inside, the manager pulled her aside and told her she would have to sit upstairs in the balcony. “I went sadly up the stairs and settled in,” she said. “The next thing I knew the black balcony was all a-bustle. The white girls from my dorm had come, with popcorn and Cokes, to settle in around me.”
In her obituary, family members wrote that Godbolt White encouraged her students at Booker T. Washington High School to believe in themselves and to believe in the improbable. “It was not uncommon to see her after school hours helping students, who often referred to her as ‘Mamma White.’ Her personal educational experience made her a living role model and helped students understand that without struggle, there can be no success. As a result, her students were encouraged to work hard and dream big.”
Funeral services were held on Saturday, Jan. 31, in Norfolk.