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Prof: ECSU trustee board not integrated until 1949

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Glen Bowman, a history professor at Elizabeth City State University, gives a lecture on desegregation in the 1930s and 1940s of the boards of trustees at North Carolina's three black colleges for educating teachers, in a classroom in the Gilchrist Complex on campus, Tuesday afternoon.

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Although the educational institution that became Elizabeth City State University was founded in 1891 to educate black teachers and had an all-black faculty and staff for decades, all the trustees were white until 1949.

ECSU history professor Glen Bowman described some of the history and politics behind that paradox Tuesday during the second annual Dr. Darnell Johnson Memorial Lecture, which dealt with desegregation in the 1930s and 1940s of the trustee boards at what were then the state’s three public colleges for educating black teachers.

Bowman noted that Elizabeth City State’s board of trustees was the last of the three to be desegregated. The board gained its first two black trustees when Gov. William Kerr Scott appointed the Rev. Howard Mitchell, a minister, prosperous farmer and Scott campaign supporter from Gates County, and Dr. E.L. Hoffler, a physician, in 1949.

According to Bowman, the trustee boards at North Carolina’s other two public black teachers colleges at the time — Fayetteville State and Winston-Salem State — were desegregated in 1936 and 1948, respectively.

Bowman said that Nathan Newbold, a Pasquotank County native who was the state’s director of education for African-Americans, recommended Thomas Settle Cooper, a 1902 graduate of Elizabeth City State Normal School — what is now ECSU — and principal of a school in Sunbury, for appointment as a trustee at Elizabeth City State.

But Scott opted for Mitchell, partly as a way to thank him for his political support, which Scott recognized as having played an important role in his victory, according to Bowman. Mitchell was appointed to replace a trustee who had not been attending meetings, Bowman said.

But Scott decided to also replace Trustee Tom Peele, son of then-Daily Advance publisher Herbert Peele, perhaps as political payback for Elizabeth City-based newspaper having endorsed Scott’s opponent in the Democratic primary for governor the year before, Bowman said.

Scott chose Hoffler, a prominent physician who treated patients in the community as well as Elizabeth City State students at a clinic on campus, to replace Peele on the trustee board.

Bowman said it was significant that other trustees were removed from the board in order for Mitchell and Hoffler to be appointed.

“They weren’t appointed because someone died,” Bowman said. “They were appointed to replace active white members, which was symbolic.”

Hoffler and Mitchell played a critical role on the trustee board in the early 1950s when they both opposed sale of the school’s farmland, which today is the site of the K.E. White Graduate Education Center and the Gilchrist Education and Psychology Building, Bowman said.

The sale of the land would have prevented ECSU from growing into its current footprint, Bowman said.

Interestingly, two Pasquotank natives were instrumental in the appointment of the first black trustee at Fayetteville State, Robert Robinson Taylor, Bowman said.

Newbold recommended Taylor to Gov. J.C.B. Ehringhaus, also a Pasquotank native. Ehringhaus appointed Taylor to the Fayetteville State trustee board in 1936.

Bowman said it’s unclear how much Ehringhaus actually believed appointing Taylor was the right thing to do and how much it was a matter of convenience. It’s worth noting, he said, that when Ehringhaus sent a letter to the trustees at Fayetteville State thanking them for their service, the letter to Taylor was signed simply “Best Wishes” while all the other letters were signed “Highest Regards.”

The apparent slight seems especially ironic, Bowman said, given that Taylor was the best-educated member of the Fayetteville State Board of Trustees at the time, holding a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1948, Rufus S. Hairston was appointed the first black trustee at Winston-Salem State University, Bowman said.

Bowman noted the lecture series at ECSU is named for Darnell Johnson, a football standout at the university in the early 1970s and later a department head. Johnson died a year ago, shortly after retiring.

“Darnell Johnson in many ways exemplified ECSU,” Bowman said.

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