Professor Saunders Honored
Professor Brenda Saunders Hampden
Honored as Civil Rights Pioneer
Professor Brenda Saunders Hampden, who at 12 years old desegregated High Point, North Carolina’s schools, and at 13 helped organize the High Point Woolworth’s sit-ins, the first such demonstrations staged by high school students in the United States.
On February 11, 1960, Professor Brenda Saunders Hampden was at Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter in High Point, N.C., refusing, along with twenty five other African-American high school students, to leave the lunch counter which would not serve them. Armed only with school books for study, and beset by the town’s angry whites, the 13-year-old Brenda Saunders Hampden and her fellow child protesters persevered for days. Though ordered by staff and police to leave, they did not go until after the Mayor appointed a Human Relations Council to help resolve the issue and Woolworth’s closed the lunch counter and then ultimately closed its doors to all business. When the store eventually reopened, it removed its lunch counter stools, a small but important seat of white privilege.
The High Point sit-in has been commemorated with a black marble and bronze panel depicting the lunch-counter scene, as well as vigils, celebrations, extensive media coverage, and a presentation by Professor Saunders Hampden at a symposium entitled, “Fifty Years After the Sit-ins: Reflecting on the Role of Protest in Social Movements and Law Reform.” The symposium was sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference, the Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law, and the University of Virginia Center for the study of Race and Law.
The High Point Woolworth’s protest followed on the heels of the more widely publicized lunch counter sit-in which took place a little more than a week earlier, in Greensboro, NC. The High Point Woolworth’s protest, however, has grown in appreciation by civil rights activists over the years, unique in that it was the very first sit-in staged by high school students in the history of the United States.
High Point had two Woolworth’s. After the protest successfully shot down the first Woolworth’s, Professor Saunders Hampden along with some of her fellow protesters ventured over to protest at the other Woolworth’s. They were met there by an angry mob that tried to overturn and set fire to their cars with a torch. This violence occurred despite the fact that the protesters generally ranged in age from 14 to 17 years old; Brenda Saunders Hampden, the youngest, was only 13 years old at the time.
Professor Saunders Hampden had spent her early childhood in New York City, traveling to her mother’s familial home in High Point each summer via train– which would stop as it entered the South to ensure that the railcars were segregated. At age 11, she and her mother and sister came back to High Point to live, and she and her sister could only attend High Point’s all-black school—despite the fact that the all-white schools were closer to their home and Brown v. Board of Education had been decided 5 years earlier.
At the close of that first school year back in High Point, Professor Saunders Hampden’s mother applied for her and her sister to be reassigned to the all-white public schools. The High Point School Board, seeking to comply with Brown v. Board in the narrowest way possible, admitted Brenda Saunders Hampden and her sister, Lynn, but no other black children. When she and her sister arrived for their first day of school, they were preceded by pickup trucks filled with rifle-toting whites— who only fled when they saw the news cameras.
Ostracized and worse, young Brenda bore the brunt of desegregation. She took solace in her family, her community and her abiding love of music. But far from buckling under the threats, abuse and occasional violence, Professor Saunders Hampden became more galvanized in her commitment to the civil rights movement. She took part in the Woolworth’s protest the very next year, and soon after that she rallied other demonstrators to begin a protest of High Point’s Paramount Theatre. Although blacks were allowed to enter the movie house, they were not allowed to sit downstairs on the cushioned seats, but had to view movies from a specially designated balcony with hard wooden seats, and were forbidden from buying refreshments from the concession stand. The protest at the theatre, which lasted for nearly three years, was not well received by many in the town. Angry whites screamed names, threatened and committed violence, and threw cold water in the dead of winter on the demonstrators.
Following graduation from high school at 16—a grizzled veteran of the civil rights movement— Professor Saunders Hampden continued in her struggle for racial equality as a regional youth representative for the state chapter of the NAACP. There, she planned and executed anti-segregation demonstrations at public facilities in various cities in North Carolina. The water hosings, beatings and arrests she had grown accustomed to continued.
And then one day someone shot at Professor Saunders Hampden while she gave a press conference in a local church. Her mother watched her TV in horror as press and camera crews scrambled for cover. But the bullet missed, and before Professor Saunders Hampden could tell her mother “It’s okay,” she found herself on a train heading northbound and enrolled in college.
She went on to receive a Bachelor’s degree cum laude and a Master’s degree in music education from Howard University in Washington, D.C. A virtuoso pianist, she was also granted a post-graduate fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study Ethnomusicology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
The bullet fired into that church didn’t stop Brenda Saunders Hampden, it merely changed her path. One thing led to another, and her social activism and her love of music, combined with a fascination for copyright and other legal issues in the music and entertainment industries, brought her to Seton Hall Law, where as a student she helped set the groundwork for creating Seton Hall’s Legal Education Opportunities Program (LEO), an alternative admissions initiative designed to facilitate law school attendance for students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds; a program she later came to direct as a faculty member, and which now, in its 31st year, boasts nearly 1,000 alumni who have distinguished themselves in every walk of legal life.
In addition, Professor Saunders Hampden has served as the founding director of the Summer Institute for Pre-Legal Studies at Seton Hall Law since the program’s inception in 1980. Now entering its 30th year, Pre-Legal is a program for New Jersey college students with socio-economic and/or educational disadvantage and an interest in the Law, providing would-be law students with a realistic expectation of the rigors and demands of law school. Pre-Legal is widely hailed as a tremendous success.
Drawing upon her music background, Professor Saunders Hampden currently teaches Entertainment Law, and Copyright as well as Property, and is Faculty Director of the Entertainment Law Externship Program, supervising students who are selected to participate in opportunities at various record companies and at MTV. And whenever there is a piano and an opportunity at a law school event, she plays.