October 01, 2014
By Victoria Kidd
When Theresa Palmer ’73 Tracy enrolled at Susquehanna University, a mere five years after the Civil Rights Act was signed and just one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., little did she know that she’d be blazing a trail that would ultimately create a lasting legacy for her on campus. As the first African-American woman to graduate from Susquehanna, Tracy has an almost legendary allure to today’s students thanks to the Theresa Palmer Society, founded by students in 2006 to bring women of color together to foster personal transformation and intercultural engagement.
Tracy says she was “both surprised and honored” when she was notified that the society had been created in her name. “I always thought I was among some of the first black students to graduate from SU, but having it verified that I was the first female was amazing,” Tracy says. “I’m not a person who takes compliments very well, so it took a while to sink in that my name was still around at SU in the 21st century. How cool is that!”
When Tracy returned to campus for the inauguration of the Theresa Palmer Society (TPS), she says she was thrilled to see so many faces of color on campus. Certainly, it wasn’t a lot in comparison to universities located in more metropolitan areas but, as Tracy says, at least it was more than the 10 she started with in 1969.
Before enrolling at Susquehanna, Tracy had never attended a school where the majority of the student body wasn’t African-American. As a young woman who grew up in Washington, D.C., she was “astonished that there were students at Susquehanna who had never seen a ‘real live’ black person before.”
Then again, Tracy and her fellow African-American peers were quite a change for Susquehanna, too. “We were all trailblazers,” she says.
The black pride movement was gaining momentum and Tracy decided to grow her first Afro while on campus. And to this day it amuses her to consider the surprise that visiting families must have felt when she was introduced as their tour guide, one of the many jobs she worked at to make her way through college.
Having come from a single-parent household, Tracy says her challenges were “probably more due to a different socio-economic level than racial. Many of the girls in my dorm were from families with maids and butlers, and all the frills that go along with that lifestyle,” she recalls.
Despite the disparities, Tracy says she never felt like she didn’t belong at Susquehanna, mainly because she refused to let herself feel that way. “As I told the members of the TPS, I’ve always believed you must grow where you are planted.”
And grow she did, in both typical and unexpected ways. “Yes,” she says, “we formed the Black Student Union (I was secretary), but I for one, did not isolate myself from the new culture I was surrounded by. I jumped right in, and I can truly say I never experienced any outward expression of discrimination while at SU.”
Tracy was a member of the women’s basketball team, even though she was often the only black person in the gym at both home and away games. She wrote for the student newspaper, joined a sorority, and was a counselor in the Spanish House. “You name it, I tried it,” she says.
One might say Tracy has done the same with her long and varied teaching career, which began in 1974 at the same junior high school she attended as a youth. After five years there, Tracy took a position in Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, where she taught both middle school and high school before retiring in 2010. Through the years, Tracy taught Spanish (her primary subject) along with various other subjects and skill-building courses. She led student tour groups to different countries and U.S. cities, and incorporated a program called Teaching Tolerance into her curriculum to combat the misconceptions her African-American students had toward Hispanics.
In hindsight, Tracy seems pleased with both her career and her alma mater. Susquehanna gets high marks from her for its efforts to raise the cultural competence of the campus community. “I often quote Oprah Winfrey when she says, ‘When you know better, you do better,’” Tracy says. “[And] cultural competency is one way to help our communities ‘do better.’”