Echoes of NCCU, Durham history
Echoes of NCCU, Durham history
Published: Friday, October 23, 2009
Updated: Wednesday, October 28, 2009 14:10
Try to imagine N. C. Central University and Durham on a June spring day about 65 years ago.
World War II is in its last days, Durham is considered the Black Wall Street and the North Carolina College for Negroes is holding its 20th commencement. The school's motto: "I serve."
It's 1945 and Mary Jean McKissick McNeill, known then as "Kissie," is graduating.
McNeill, now 84, was one of 102 in her graduating class.
McNeill had served the 1944-45 academic year as the editor of the Campus Echo.
"John Hope Franklin taught Negro history," said McNeill, a resident of Durham who retired here after teaching for much of her adult life in Washington, D.C. at Eastern and Anacostia High School.
"He taught history from slavery to freedom. Like the name of the book," she said.
"I made an A in it and I loved it."
If you've ever wondered where the name for the Farrison-Newton Communication Building came from, McNeill has the answer.
She studied under Pauline Newton, the chair of the speech department and W. E. Farrison, the chair of the English department.
"I would study the dictionary for Pauline Newton's class," said McNeill shaking her head. "They were my teachers, but became my co-workers."
A member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., McNeill grew up in Asheville and relocated to Durham to attend James Shepard's North Carolina College for Negroes.
She received a bachelor's degree in English and library sciences.
McNeill's grandfathers were ministers and in those days, every student was required to attend vespers, sermons or prayers on Sundays. She also sang in the choir at B. N. Duke Auditorium.
"There were Sunday school classes in the administration hall that were well attended," said McNeill.
"Not many attended the Holy Cross Church. There were not many black Catholics in the South back then."
McNeill's dormitory was the original Chidley Hall, now Rush Hall, located off of Fayetteville Street at the campus main entrance.
At the time, tuition, room and board ran in the hundreds, not thousands of dollars. The largest scholarship available from the University was for $500.
McNeill said the school had many inspiring speakers and visitors, including ministers, actresses and actors. The Roosevelts were one of these visitors.
"The biggest story I reported was the death of Roosevelt," said McNeill. "It was sad."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945. He held office for four terms and had seen America through the Great Depression and much of World War II.
According to McNeill, most men were serving in the war and very few men were seen on campus.
"Sororities and frats had little things going on like service projects and good deeds," she said.
McNeill described NCCU founder James E. Shepard as "straight laced and no nonsense."
She said he was forced to be cautious as the leader of a state-supported black college. "Dr. Shepard didn't want to rock the boat," she said.
"He was stern but fair ,and I admired him greatly," she said.
As editor of the Campus Echo, McNeill said her biggest worry was printing something that would offend Shepard.
"It wasn't fear, just respect," said McNeill. "Young people respected their elders then."
Then, each issue of the Campus Echo was about four pages.
The adviser, Isador Oglesby, was a business teacher. McNeill said about 20 students worked on the Campus Echo, but usually about 10 helped during production nights.
"We didn't have a large budget, but Dr. Shepard wanted to promote the paper," she said. "If we published once a month, we were doing OK."
Shepard approached her about working at NCCU just before she graduated.
"He said, ‘Ms. McKissick, you've done well here. Come back for your master's and we'll give you a job.' "
And this is exactly what she did. She earned her master's degree in English in 1954 and taught English and speech for about 10 years while living on Rosewood Street and raising a family.
After teaching at NCCU, McNeill moved to Washington, D.C., where she taught high school.
While McNeill was teaching in the 1950s ,NCCU was called N.C. College at Durham. Durham's black society and economy was flourishing.
"Anyone who was anyone in black society came to Durham in those days," she said.
"There were so many negro entrepreneurs operating businesses in town, then — the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, movie theatres, we had everything we needed."
McNeill also witnessed and supported the first stirring of the Civil Rights Movement.
"It was a different time and place," she said.
"NCCU students would meet secretly with Duke and UNC students to discuss plans for the movement."
McNeill said that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. met with her brother, Floyd McKissick, about training people for sit-ins and preparing them in case they were jailed.
"They taught people how to stay passive, take blows and trained them to deal with abuse," she said. "There were no baseball bats. You went in with just the good Lord on one shoulder and an angel on the other."
McNeill also lent her support to students organizing the historic June 23, 1957 Royal Ice Cream Parlor sit-in Durham.
This sit-in was the first of several historic sit-ins that occurred in North Carolina.
The parlor, once located at the corner of Roxboro and Dowd streets had a side door on Dowd Street that had a separate window to serve blacks, while the main entrance on Roxboro Street was used by whites.
The sit-in, organized to defy Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation, was led by Rev. Douglas Moore, who went on to become the first North Carolina delegate to Southern Christian Leadership Council. Moore is credited with helping to convince Martin Luther King, Jr. to adopt a non-confrontational policy to American apartheid.