It was late summer 1965 and the day was getting hot. But
Ulysses “Skip” Bennett was too focused to notice the heat as
he drove onto campus.
It was his first day as a student at
Birmingham-Southern. Bennett, a
resident of Birmingham’s Collegeville
neighborhood, arrived that August with
high hopes of obtaining a first-class
He enrolled at BSC in the shadow of
Vivian Malone and James Hood, who had
integrated the University of Alabama just
two years prior in a nationally-publicized
event. Bennett’s first day on the Hilltop
may not have attracted much media
attention, but it was a big deal in the
history of the college.
Leaders at Birmingham-Southern had begun facing
some hard facts. On Jan. 15, 1965, the college’s trustees
authorized then-President Dr. Howard Phillips to sign a
federal compliance form issued under the Civil Rights Act
of 1964 barring discrimination of any kind based on color,
race, or national origin. Bennett was admitted later that
year, becoming the first black student to matriculate at BSC.
“I sought no special favors,” he says. “I just wanted to
take advantage of a scholarship to get a good education at
a small college. I thought BSC would be a great academic
environment and provide an experience in which I could
learn and grow, and that it would prepare me to get a
good job after I graduated. My family and friends were
supportive of my decision.”
Bennett had started out at Morehouse in Atlanta—then
the crème de la crème of black colleges—but was unable
to re-enroll midway through his sophomore year due to
financial reasons. He wanted to come back to Birmingham
and considered both Samford and BSC before deciding
’Southern suited him better. Because he couldn’t begin at
BSC in the middle of the school year, he attended UAB for
one semester to prevent a gap on his record.
“When I stepped onto the BSC campus to continue
my undergraduate career, I didn’t know what to expect,”
Bennett remarks. “But prior to entering ’Southern, I had
been elected to key leadership roles at Carver High School
and at Morehouse and had developed an extraordinary
confidence. I felt that I could deal with whatever would be
presented to me. And I was determined to complete my
college education in four years and graduate in the same
year as my Morehouse peers.”
At BSC, Bennett took advantage of all the opportunities
for close interaction with faculty and friendships with
fellow students. He says he never encountered any serious
negativism towards his being there, although he did have a
few tough lessons in learning how to react.
“I remember one unpleasant experience
when another student walked up to me and
blew cigarette smoke in my face,” Bennett
recalls. “I was more annoyed than offended
by his actions. I learned at BSC how to relate
on an eye-to-eye basis to people from a
background and upbringing that is different
from mine.”
Bennett graduated in the spring of 1967
with a degree in business administration.
There was no fanfare as he walked across the
platform to accept his diploma, although a
black-owned city newspaper showed up to
cover the story.
Within a month, he got married and started working as
an agent for the Internal Revenue Service in Birmingham.
Two years later Bennett was drafted into the U.S. Army, but
enrolling in the Stanford Graduate School of Business in
the fall of 1971 garnered him an early military release. After
completing his MBA at Stanford, he was employed for over
a decade in various finance and planning positions, initially
at General Mills in Minneapolis, then at Mobil Corp. as vice
president of finance and CFO of its then-Signature Group in
Bennett worked briefly as an insurance agent and planner
for Connecticut General and New England Financial before
starting Bennett Financial in 1985. He is active in that
business in Arlington, Texas. He and his wife, Cathy, have
two married daughters and five grandchildren who live near
them in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
Half a century since the time Bennett opened a new
door at Birmingham-Southern, he has no regrets about
his decision to enroll—mostly because he sees the world
beyond the prism of his own experience.
“I believe success comes at the intersection of opportunity
and readiness, and I’ve always been the kind of person to
make lemonade out of lemons,” Bennett says. “I’m proud
to have been a tiny player in desegregating Birmingham. In
the eyes of God, each of his creation is created equal.”
Breaking a color barrier
Birmingham-Southern’s first black student remembers the time
Bennett will be honored during halftime of the BSC
Homecoming football game vs. Rhodes, slated for
Nov. 2.
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