Benoît Nzengu, 1966
Authored by Anisha Dhungana ’21 in “Beyond the International Festival, the Lives of Black International Students at Davidson College“
last updated 02.10.2021
Davidson College’s history of integration is a complex story. This opening photo is of the first Black student at Davidson, but at first glance, one would not have guessed or known that he was the first. In the photo, his wide smile gives off the impression that he is relaxed, happy, and at ease as he has just finished class and is walking out of Chambers with his books at hand. Wearing glasses and dressed in a white, tucked button-down shirt with leather shoes, he is posing as he walks down the stairs with the door to Chambers open behind him. This is Benoît Nzengu, the first Black student at Davidson College.
Benoît, or Dr. Nzengu, as he is now a surgeon in France, is from the Democratic Republic of Congo was an international, Black student and the first Black student at Davidson College. He began his studies in the fall of 1962, two years after Congo gained independence from Belgium. However, the conversations surrounding integration and his arrival at Davidson had been ongoing since 1958, four years after Brown v. Board of Education and one year after the first African country, Ghana, gained independence from British colonial rule. The arguments for integration within the Davidson community stemmed from the ideals of “Christian ethics” that deemed segregation as un-Christian. In 1958, Joe Bell (‘60) wrote an article for The Davidsonian titled “A Plea for Negro Students” in which he argued that
Davidson’s present segregated status has no support in the position of the Church, and it is inconsistent with the purposes of the school itself…It has been suggested that some of our better white students would leave if Negroes were admitted. However, my observation is that only a few would do this, and the school can afford to lose those who would (Bell 1958, qtd. In “Thereby Hangs a Tale”).
Throughout the next couple of years, the all-white and male student body, faculty and Board of Trustees would hold polls, discussions and write more articles in the Davidsonian arguing for and against integration.
However, in 1961, President Martin received a letter from nine Davidson alumni who were serving as missionaries at the American Prebyterian Congo Mission urging him to vote yes on integration and they were supported by the Board of World Mission and the General Assembly of the presbyterian Church. This proved to be the most influential document that swayed the President and the trustees’ decision. After this letter and decision, the college planned on welcoming three Congolese students in the fall of 1961; however, the Board of World Missions did not find a Congolese student that they considered qualified enough “to send to us [Davidson College]” (“Martin: We will Have no Congolese Next Fall’” 1961, p. 1). This delay allowed the school to conduct one final, more organized poll on the topic of integration and found that 59% voted in favor while 47% voted against integration. In May of 1962, the Board of Trustees approved a resolution to open the college to students regardless of race or nationality, stating that “all we want to do is to be right in our policies for both Davidson and the Church” (Loflin 1962, p.1). The Davidsonian expressed their “hearty thanks to the Trustees for what [they] consider their wise and Christian decision” (Loflin 1962, p.1).
Between 1958-1962, while the Davidson community grappled with their Christian and Presbyterian conscience to decide the future of the college, the Civil Rights Movement grew throughout the country, fighting for the equal rights and humanity of Black people. Davidson’s focus on Christianity and ultimately the influence of missionaries in their decision to integrate speaks to the power of the Presbyterian church and begs the question what would have happened if this institutional pressure was not present. Though the Presbyterian Church were supporters of the Civil Rights Movement and advocated for integration, the discourse surrounding Congolese students as packages to be ‘sent’ and returned to Congo “to become Prebyterian leaders in their own countries” (“Thereby Hangs a Tail” 2016) shows the Church’s hypocrisies, since they continued their religious missionary programs in Congo which can be considered a form of neocolonialism within the African continent. Furthermore, these discrepancies between the Civil Rights Movement, that focused on equality and humanity, and the Presbyterian Church that supposedly supported the movement but continued to exploit Africa in the name of religion shows the white saviorism complex within the church and ultimately Davidson. Nonetheless, these are the conversations, centering the Christian ethic rather than equality and justice, that had to occur for the first Black student to come to Davidson, and as the open the door in the photo shows, for the Black students to follow behind his steps.
The semester after 47% of the student body voted against his arrival, Benoît began his Davidson education with 17 other international students (“Thereby Hangs a Tale” 2016). All of the other international students were sponsored by a fraternity on campus, except for Benoît. While Benoît is smiling in this photo, which was originally taken for a news article on him and his adjustment to Davidson College for the Charlotte News, the realities of his experience were very different. In fact, after the publication of his story in multiple Charlotte newspapers, he began to receive death threats. With multiple businesses around the area refusing to serve him, President Martin had to intervene and ask if Benoît could come to the local theater if he was accompanied by two white students who would sit on either side of him so that other white people would not have to (“Thereby Hangs a Tail” 2016). With almost half of the student body and the surrounding areas of Davidson against Benoît’s arrival at Davidson, it was clear that it would take time for the community to adjust to integration. However, he did find ways to make Davidson his own. He played for the soccer team, studied pre-med, was involved in civil rights protests throughout his time, and was able to form connections and relationships with professors and students, especially after his sophomore year when Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, the second Congolese student, joined him at Davidson.
Benoît’s story is told as the story of integration at Davidson, but it should also be highlighted as the story of his own resilience and perseverance through it all. Placed in an extremely racially charged environment, not only within the micro of Davidson College, but as well as the macro Civil Rights Movement across the country, Benoît began the legacy of Black excellence at Davidson College, opening the door to the powerful Black voices of the diaspora and America that would pass through Davidson. Benoît continued his medical studies in France, where he still lives. He is currently writing an autobiography that will be published in the coming years, information that was shared with me by Georges during my informal call with him.