To Be Young, Gifted, and Black

7 February 2024
By Nicole Asong Nfonoyim-Hara

As Ebony II—now Synchrony II—turns 50, Debra McCray ’76 reflects on dance, race, and magic.

Debra McCray, circa 1975
Debra McCray circa 1975

T​​he warm tenor of a saxophone fills the Arena Theater—the bass line an effortless cool, punctuated by the soulful twang of the electric piano and the lyrical flow of brass and funk strings. In a swirl of powder blue tuxedos and white chiffon, twelve students take the stage to Grover Washington Jr.’s jazz hit “Mr. Magic.” The dancers move in unison, embodying the rhythm, making their own magic with every step.

It is 1975.

The 1970s were marked by an aesthetic of cool even as race riots raged on and Black struggle persisted in the post-Civil Rights years. Cultural and political revolutions like the Black Arts Movement and the rise of Black Power all signaled an era-defining shift: a fervent embrace and celebration of African American culture and its importance in American life. “It was so rewarding to see how much talent, how much ingenuity, how brilliant all of these Black students were,” recalls Debra McCray ’76, the founder of Ebony II, Carleton’s first Black dance troupe. She choreographed the “Mr. Magic” piece during her junior year and it remains her favorite performance. This year Ebony II celebrates the 50th anniversary of its first performance.

McCray arrived at Carleton in 1972, four years after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the year U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm ran for president. At Carleton, she was welcomed by a vibrant and tight-knit Black community—one that had grown in just a few short years due in large part to the dedicated efforts and leadership of Fred Easter, who served in various roles including assistant director of admissions and as director of Black activities, as well as the students, faculty, and staff who had organized and protested the decade before.

Started as part of Black History Week programming on the campus in 1973, Ebony II was as much a celebration of the diverse talents of McCray’s classmates as it was a cultivation of Black space at the predominantly white institution. Beyond the dancers themselves, McCray remembers it being a “full-on Black experience,” with everything from the program design and costuming to lighting and sound being created and directed by Black students. Ebony II was among several Black-led student organizations founded on campus in the early 1970s. The group rose out of an ethos of celebrating excellence and a quiet politics of self-regard. This celebration was a striking balancing act: it was a generous practice of holding multiple truths around what it meant to both be proverbially “young, gifted, and Black” on a college campus and to honor a collective history while daring to create a future all our own.

Ebony II dancers in the 1970s
An Ebony II dance troupe rehearsal

Leadership came naturally to McCray, the oldest of nine children from Detroit, as she helped care for her siblings. She also had a spirit of curiosity, an earnest “what if?” that still brightens her voice 50 years on. This embrace of possibility and the bravery to be the first and only in many spaces has been at the core of McCray’s journey and her many achievements at Carleton and later at Wells Fargo, where she worked for almost four decades before retiring as senior vice president in 2013.

As part of the national A Better Chance (ABC) program, McCray was offered the opportunity to attend Verde Valley School, a college-preparatory boarding school in Sedona, Arizona. Leaving her family and traveling by plane for the first time in her life, McCray landed in Phoenix and took a five-hour bus ride through the dusty desert countryside to Yavapai County. It was there that she met the legendary flamenco dancer and choreographer María Benítez. Benítez was a dance pioneer, performing internationally and, by the late 1960s, teaching a new generation of dancers in the United States, McCray among them. Her experience in Benítez’s dance troupe was McCray’s first time dancing and served as a guiding inspiration when she arrived at Carleton and started Ebony II. While at Carleton, renowned dance professor Mary Moore Easter became a mentor to McCray and beloved adviser to the new student dance troupe. McCray credits Fred and Mary Easter for their commitment to cultivating a deep sense of family and community for Carleton’s Black students.

McCray’s class was the largest group of incoming Black students in the college’s history. Carleton was one of several small liberal arts institutions that made strides in racial and ethnic equity during the late 1960s and 1970s. While approaches varied across institutions, Carleton seemed committed to ensuring students were not only recruited but were also able to thrive at the college. Bardwell Smith, a beloved religion professor who served as dean of the college from 1967 to 1972, was once quoted saying, “If by integration you mean accepting black students and forcing them into the mold of white values, then no, we are not integrating Carleton. . . . We are trying to be part of the process in this country which is forming a new culture.” And, indeed, McCray agrees that her time at Carleton was shaped by the sense that she and her Black peers were part of something, and that something was unapologetic, resilient, durable, and strong, much like the hard wood from which her dance organization takes its name.

Fifty years after Ebony II’s first performance, national conversations around representation, safe space for historically marginalized communities, and true inclusion are still fraught. In 2015, Ebony II changed its name to Synchrony II in an effort to better reflect the ways in which the dance group had changed and its inclusion of students of all backgrounds. Before doing so, the students reached out to McCray as the founder. McCray admits she had mixed feelings about the name change but was committed to honoring the ways in which the organization had grown and the leadership of current students. Still, McCray believes spaces that center Black students and Black life remain necessary, and the original name “Ebony” made that clear. For McCray, being part of a strong and healthy Black campus community was not about exclusion or staying with “one’s group.” Instead, belonging to these spaces meant that she could be free to explore who she was and what she was interested in and connect authentically with all her classmates regardless of their background.

By her junior year, McCray was not only leading Ebony II but was also serving as captain of the Carleton women’s basketball team. She worked to carve a space for Black community while also engaging with the wider campus and seeking opportunities to pursue her dual passions of dance and basketball. It was during a basketball practice that McCray met her husband, Geoffrey, then a student at neighboring St. Olaf. While they never shared the stage, Geoffrey was a fervent supporter and fan of Ebony II. Over the course of three years, with McCray and co-director Derek Phillips ’77 at the helm, the performances of Ebony II grew exponentially and the dance troupe found itself traveling throughout Northfield and the Twin Cities metro area to perform at schools, in Black churches, and even at other colleges in the area. Beginning in 1974, Black students at St. Olaf were also invited to dance as part of the troupe. Ebony II became a connector of Black community well beyond the Carleton campus.

McCray found the city of Northfield itself to be welcoming. During her junior year, she started working at Northfield Bank. A math-turned-economics major, McCray began learning a profession that would become her lifelong career. By the early 1980s, McCray was a working mom, serving in various roles at Wells Fargo throughout the region. It was challenging to rise up the ranks as a Black woman at a time when she had no models to look up to in the financial industry. She faced both racism and gender discrimination, and each time she found support in her family, community, and at work.

There’s a sparkling mirth to McCray, an easy lightness that hints to the fact that even decades after having been the first to create so many spaces and walk into so many rooms as the “only one,” she is still having fun, still grooving, and making magic to a beat all her own.

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