Joan Trampauer Mulholland achieved a series of notable firsts over the course of her life. She holds the distinction of being the first white student to integrate Mississippi’s Tougaloo College, and she is also the first white student to join the Black Greek sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.
Born Joan Nelson on September 14, 1941, Mulholland was born in D.C. but raised primarily across the river in Northern Virginia. Her great-grandparents were slave owners and the racism her family harbored might have trickled down to her. Instead, Mulholland took a different path, electing instead to rally behind those who feel that they’ve been unjustly treated.
This passion for justice remained while she attended Duke University, joining several sit-ins and clashing with others whites and faculty. Eventually, Mulholland was forced to leave and she became active in the Freedom Riders movement. Despite constant threats and violence, Mulholland continued working SNCC and the Freedom Riders.
One of the civil rights movement’s toughest battles took place in May 1963 at the infamous Woolworth lunch counter sit-in. Mulholland was attacked by angry whites who didn’t understand why a Southern, educated white woman would align with the civil rights activists. In some accounts, she was called the segregationist’s worst nightmare.
In her later years, Mulholland worked for the Smithsonian and as an English teacher in Northern Virginia. She is now retired and lives in the Greater Washington region.