Cross burned on UO sorority's lawn 60 years ago

EUGENE, Ore. - Deb Mohr met DeNorval Unthank at Gerlinger Hall on the University of Oregon campus during Lent 60 years ago.

"I couldn't help but notice De. He was extremely good looking," she said. "I liked him immediately. He was easy to be with and um, you could tell he was a very, very intelligent man."

Deb was a bright-eyed college sophomore and a sorority girl.

De was an architecture student with big dreams of a successful career.

But one thing made them different: the color of their skin.

"There was no black and white dating. It just wasn't, it wasn't done," Mohr told KVAL News. "Everybody stayed within their own little world.

"I met De," she said, "and I was exposed to a very different world."

Mohr, then known as Doris Burgess, was white. Unthank was black.

Back in 1951, the UO was a predominantly white campus, according to Mohr. She said maybe a dozen black students attend the university at the time.

And when in March 1951 she began dating DeNorval, who she affectionately calls De, the relationship was frowned upon.

"On campus we were very secure, it was our place. But outside of campus that wasn't true," she said. "I can remember a few people talking to me and taking me aside and saying, 'What are you doing?'"

The situation came to a head one night in May 1951 when a group of men burned a cross on the front lawn of her Gamma Phi Beta sorority house.

"The burning cross to me was a symbol of horror and terror," Mohr said. She raced down the hall to the phone to call De and make sure he was OK.

"Knowing that De could be in a great deal of danger, I don't ever remember being afraid for all of us, the girls in the sorority," she said.

After that night, Mohr said she was given a choice: leave the sorority - or break up with De.

"I was pressured by alums and by the President of the house," she said. "They had their standards and that was the way it was, and mine were different. I was not going to give in to what they believed to be correct at that time.

"I left," she said, "and I guess you could say I've never looked back."

She married De on July 7, 1951, in Washington state. At the time it was illegal for whites to marry blacks in Oregon.

"We didn't want to wait. It seems to me we decided to get married when we were sitting around the dinner table," she said. "I don't think we actively thought about making changes, I don't think that was in our minds. I think that we viewed ourselves as very good people and we had a good life ahead of us."

They had three children but continued to fight what was normal at the time in Oregon when it came to race.

"We've never made a big deal out of it. It's never anything that I've allowed to be even a part of my life," she said of that night in 1951 and the aftermath.

De passed away in 2000.

Deb decided to tell her story in her own words, crafting a story for the Oregon Quarterly.

"This is a story that's got to be told," she said. "It happened, and I did what I absolutely believed was right and I still believe it was right."

Kristina Nelson and Bill Goetz of KVAL News bring you Deb's story in her own words Tuesday night on KVAL 13 TV News at 6 and this web page. {>}{>}{>} Photo Gallery of scenes from the story

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