1959 alum brings past and present into focus
Published: Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Updated: Wednesday, November 18, 2009 13:11
June 2, 1959 was the 45th annual commencement of the N.C. College at Durham, now N.C. Central University.
That year's class completed its secondary education in an era of legalized discrimination, and without the efficiencies of modern technology.
Most students cannot imagine life without cell phones, computers, iPods and Facebook — but past alumni paved the way without these "necessities."
Among the graduates that year was Mattie Giles, convocation speaker of NCCU's 62nd annual Founder's Day. A major in sociology with a double minor in education and library science, Giles is a retired professor of social work at the University of the District of Columbia.
"I am grateful for all the University has done for me and countless others," said Giles on Friday.
She said NCCU graduates were stronger and wiser and more educated because of our founder. "Dr. Shepard made it possible, no matter the school's name."
Giles' convocation speech connected the rich past of NCCU with the present state of the institution.
She recounted her freshman year at the N.C. College at Durham with pride. She recalled the humiliation of wearing "beanies," or skull caps, to signify freshman classification, and witnessing the vocal gift of her classmate, Shirley Caesar, at the freshman talent show.
"What a difference time, need and resources make," said Giles.
Under the guidance of Marjorie Shepard, daughter of founder James E. Shepard, Giles earned 55 cents an hour for work-study in the James E. Shepard Memorial Library.
She told the audience about a Mr. Alston and his dog, who constituted "the one-man, one-dog, one- nightstick" campus security force from 1954 to 1959.
"For us to look where we're going, we've got to look where we've been and from whence we've come," she said.
Giles discussed the prejudices of the Jim Crow era and the social activism of her and her peers. They were involved in civil rights sit-ins and boycotted downtown Durham department stores and diners.
Education offered them an escape from the shortcomings of society as well as the tools to combat it.
"Education allowed us to get away from picking cotton, harvesting tobacco, working in mills and working in white folks' homes for minimal wage," she said.
"Be well, carry the torch and fly high," said Giles, closing her speech.
Giles expressed appreciation to Dr. James E. Shepard. "For his vision, dedication, tenacity and courage, we are stronger, wiser and more educated individuals," she said.