Friends, colleagues and family members of North Carolina Central University (NCCU) Chancellor Debra Saunders-White filled McDougald-McLendon Arena on Friday, Dec. 2, for a 'Celebration of Life Tribute' to the university leader.
Saunders-White was 59 when she died of cancer on Nov. 26. She was in her third year as the university’s first permanent female chancellor.
“Debra walked with strength, courage and wisdom,” said the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, an NCCU alumnus and president of the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP who served as keynote speaker for the tribute. “And she wanted every student also to have power and strength.”
Barber said Saunders-White’s life may have been shorter than expected, but she never ceased caring for and working on behalf of the university.
“She showed us how to face life with grace,” he added. “She showed us a little black-girl magic.”
He added that anyone who wanted to honor the legacy of Saunders-White should find a way to support public education, especially historically black colleges and universities.
The late chancellor was a first-generation college graduate who started her career as an executive in the technology field before entering higher education administration. Her previous appointments were at Hampton University, the University of North Carolina Wilmington and the U.S. Department of Education.
UNC President Margaret Spellings praised Saunders-White’s enthusiasm, determination and desire to see all NCCU students succeed.
“Deb was deeply accomplished and always poised,” Spellings said. “She also found the time to be a friend to her students. She was someone who invited scholarship students over to her house for dinner.”
Spellings said Saunders-White was among the first UNC officials to reach out to her after she was named to the UNC presidency in fall 2015.
“She wanted to make sure I had found a place to get my nails done and to get a good meal,” Spellings said. “She wanted me to feel at home in North Carolina.”
Other dignitaries speaking at the tribute included NCCU Board of Directors Chairman George R. Hamilton; NCCU Provost and Acting Chancellor Dr. Johnson O. Akinleye; U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield; Durham Mayor Bill Bell; N.C. Rep. H.M. “Mickey” Michaux; and UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt.
Music was provided by the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble, saxophonist and NCCU alumnus Marcus Anderson and the NCCU University Choir.
Saunders-White’s brother, Ralph Saunders, spoke of his sister’s work ethic and determination to be the first in the family to attend college.
A funeral service for Saunders-White will take place at 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in her hometown of Hampton, Va.