In 1910, Dr. James E. Shepard, a Durham pharmacist and religious educator, opened the National Religious Training School and Chautauqua for the Colored Race and declared its purpose to be “the development in young men and women of the character and sound academic training requisite for real service to the nation.”
The institution struggled financially in its early years. In 1915, it was sold and reorganized, then becoming the National Training School. In 1923, the state legislature appropriated funds to buy the school and renamed it the Durham State Normal School. Two years later, the legislature converted the institution into the North Carolina College for Negroes, dedicating it to liberal arts education and the preparation of teachers and principals. The college thus became the nation’s first state-supported liberal arts college for black students.
In 1939, the college offered its first graduate-level courses in the arts and sciences. The School of Law opened in 1940, followed in 1941 by the School of Library Science. In 1947, the legislature changed the name to North Carolina College at Durham. Shepard served as president until his death in 1947. Dr. Alfonso Elder was installed in 1948 as his successor.
North Carolina College at Durham became North Carolina Central University in 1969. On July 1, 1972, all the state’s public four-year colleges and universities were joined to become the Consolidated University of North Carolina. As part of the transition, the chief executive’s title changed from president to chancellor.
Dr. Albert N. Whiting presided over the transition, leading the university from 1967 until 1983. He was succeeded by Dr. LeRoy T. Walker, vice chancellor for university relations and an internationally renowned track and field coach. Dr. Tyronza R. Richmond succeeded Walker in 1986; Richmond’s tenure saw the establishment of the School of Education.
In 1993, Dr. Julius L. Chambers, a noted civil rights attorney, became the first NCCU alumnus to lead the university. He launched a major capital effort that led to construction of a biomedical/biotechnology research institute and a new School of Education building.
Dr. James H. Ammons became chancellor in June 2001, eight months after state voters approved a major bond issue for UNC system capital improvements. NCCU was among the campuses targeted for growth, and under Ammons’ leadership the university experienced a surge in enrollment.
Dr. Charlie Nelms succeeded Ammons in 2007. During his five-year tenure, he emphasized student success and focused on improving retention and graduation rates. Nelms presided over NCCU’s centennial celebration during the 2009-10 year. Under his leadership, NCCU was ranked as the nation’s No. 1 public historically black university by U.S. News & World Report for two consecutive years. Nelms retired in 2012 and was succeeded on an interim basis by Charles L. Becton, a prominent attorney and former judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Dr. Debra Saunders-White succeeded Becton in June 2013.
Saunders-White was the first permanent female chancellor at NCCU. Devoted to her vision of “Eagle Excellence” in classrooms, on campus and in service, Saunders-White strategically enhanced, elevated and showcased NCCU as a first-choice, premier and global institution of higher learning with a significant increase in retention and graduation rates, strength and reputation among education administrators, student-faculty ratios and alumni giving. The university recorded several institution fundraising records, became the third-highest ranked public Historically Black College of University (HBCU) in the nation by U.S. News & World Report and was named 2016 HBCU of the Year by HBCU Digest. She was also named Educator of the Year by SpectacularMagazine.
Saunders-White passed away in 2016. She was succeeded by Dr. Johnson O. Akinyele, who now serves as NCCU’s interim chancellor.