A Q&A with Maggie Lowery, activist, Renaissance woman and holder of three degrees from UND

At UND, Maggie Lowery earned a doctorate in 2019, almost 50 years after graduating with two bachelor’s degrees

Having earned both undergraduate and doctoral degrees at UND, Maggie Lowery has forged a career that spans geographies and professions. Here she is pictured as an undergraduate at UND in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Maggie Lowery.

The Merriam-Webster English dictionary defines “Renaissance woman” as “a woman who is interested in and knows a lot about many things.” Maggie Lowery embodies the term.

Born and raised in segregated Alabama, Lowery earned two bachelor’s degrees from the University of North Dakota in the 1970s before returning to Grand Forks in 2012 to obtain a doctorate in educational leadership.

In the intervening decades, Lowery became a civil rights activist who has focused her research on the racial pitfalls of schools. In some ways, she stepped onto her career path when she was about 13, participating with her family in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965.

Midway between the two cities, her father ran a general store, which Martin Luther King Jr. would visit. As a kid, she shook the Reverend’s hand on several occasions. Later, she dedicated herself to some of the causes King himself promoted.

In 2019, roughly 50 years after first coming to North Dakota to study social sciences and family economics as an undergraduate, Lowery defended her doctoral dissertation at UND. She examined how school practices and policies impact the graduation rates of Black, Asian and Latino boys in North Dakota’s public high schools. While at the University for a second time, she also taught a course on the civil rights movement through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institution.

Moreover, while pursuing her doctorate, Lowery found the time to write a book – “Pressing My Way Throughout America” – about her journeys throughout the United States. She has lived in all major regions of the country and worked in fashion, technology, juvenile corrections and education.

Today, Lowery is back in her home state of Alabama. Recently, UND Today caught up with her to learn more about her experiences at UND and what made her come back to Grand Forks for a second time.

The below interview is edited for length and clarity.  

Tell us a little about your childhood in Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s.

I was born and reared in Central Alabama. That’s between Montgomery and Selma. I grew up on a great big farm, lots of siblings, Mom and Dad. We rode horses and had lots of farm animals. Back then, I was born in the early ‘50s, people got along very well. Where I grew up, there weren’t very many whites, but the whites and the Blacks that were, they got along. I had pleasant childhood; very, very pleasant.

School and everything was very pleasant. It was segregated, but the teachers were totally professional. You know, they could spank you back then if they needed to. And that wasn’t a problem. We didn’t have a lot of problems, definitely not like today at all.

As a researcher, you study racial disparities in schools. What are some of the key issues you see today?

Photo courtesy of Maggie Lowery.

There’s so much for students of color to go through. There’re all the safety issues about being at school. There’s all of the single parenthood. For many children, there are a lot racial issues: the disparities within the school and within the communities, particularly for Black boys. And, the school system has deteriorated. It is not really educating them in a way that’s valuable or remarkable for them to be able to survive in society.

With school integration came a whole lot of discrimination. And, there’s so much special education, which in my opinion as a researcher, has contributed to a whole lot of problems and crime in Black neighborhoods. Students are not trained anymore to do anything. Special education becomes a stigma. They are stigmatized as having some type of mental disorder, which makes them unfit for a whole lot of services within the United States, even the military.

So many children of color, particularly Black boys, are not in school to learn anything. Some survive because of self-advocacy, because they are encouraged by someone, their parents or coach or someone at the school. So, many are surviving. But too many aren’t. They stay at the bottom.

You have also examined some landmark cases for the nation’s educational system. Tell us about that.

I did my studies on Brown v. the Board of Education. What black students really needed back then was money put into the school system. What they complained about was not having the resources and not having transportation to school. You know, stuff that money could have fixed, and they didn’t need to upstage children.

I think it would have been better to integrate students as the economy changed and progressed – as people of color got better jobs and were able to acclimate over into higher level of class of society and they were able to move into those neighborhoods and acclimate with that society.

What do you see the role of universities to be when it comes addressing racial problems?

It seems as though colleges and universities are getting to be on a more equal level. I think that we’ve crossed a lot of barriers. I think students of color can get in the schools that they work hard to get into now. It’s just a matter of being prepared and working hard to get there.

I’ve graduated from almost-all-white universities. I went to UND and, for my master’s degree, I went to Auburn University, which is another almost-all-white university in the South. So, my experience has been that if you go and you apply yourself and you show up and do what you’re told to do and do it with excellence, then you can achieve and become successful in any place.

A piece of advice I have for students of color: if you’re looking for a good education, be willing to go to where there are opportunities. For example, UND has a Cultural Diversity Scholarship. I think the University of North Dakota is a really good college. There’s a lot of quality and quantity in that university. And, it is a really safe environment, there’s a lot you can get to do, and you can get to know a lot of different people from all over the world. Coming to a place such as that, you’ll leave with a good education.

My experience with the University of North Dakota was really a great one. I wanted to become a fashion designer. I didn’t particularly want to go to college. And fashion schools were so exclusive and very expensive. I didn’t have financial aid. But I got the opportunity to come to UND, and I’ve enjoyed so many things about it.

Why did you want to become a fashion designer?

My mom used to make a lot of quilts and a lot of crafts. I always would make doll clothes since I was a little kid. When I was in school, I took all the sewing awards, and I won the homemaker awards. I was always interested. We lived in a rural area, and we’d get fashion magazines and fashion catalogs. People really dressed nice back then. If you dressed nicely, it said a whole lot about you.

I’ve gotten pretty high in clothing. With my first degree, I specialized in fashion and textiles at UND. I also owned my own fashion apparel place, where I specialized in wedding apparel and formal wear when I lived in Santa Cruz, Calif. I opened up a little venue where I started sewing, and I really enjoyed it until the quake of 1989 came along and wiped it out. But I still do all types of sewing.

How did you make the decision to come to UND?

I came in 1971. UND had started what they called a cultural exchange program with a predominantly black college, Grambling State University in Louisiana. UND would send a few white students to Grambling for a semester, and Grambling would send a few Black students to UND. Black students particularly liked UND, and most of the Black students that came through that program remained at UND.

I was subsequently recruited by one of the students who came to UND from Grambling State University. I came along with two high-school classmates of mine from Alabama.

You returned to UND to do a doctorate in educational leadership. Why?

After the earthquake in California, I moved back home to Alabama. That’s when I got my master’s degree at Auburn. After that, I did some teaching. I was teaching at a school in Louisville, Ky., and the principal there would hire troubleshooters, consultants. They would go around as consultants and find out what the troubles were within that school. And they would come back around and do teacher trainings and professional development.

And so ultimately, that’s what I wanted to do: to go around and troubleshoot; to see what the problems are, and to introduce new ways and new methods of teaching.

How was it coming back to North Dakota after almost 50 years?

I came back to UND in 2012. It was kind of challenging to get started at first, but after I really got in and got going, there was no looking back. I had nice classmates and professors and lots of help from the University.

And, I have always liked Grand Forks. I am an outgoing person. I grew up in a farming area. So the farming, I like. There is a whole lot to do around the University. There was always a lot to do [in the 1970s], and coming back was the same. I got involved with a lot of churches and got to know a lot of the people. It was nice for me. I’ve never had any problems at all. You don’t have social problems, the violence that you deal with in so many other places.