Modern, Diverse Campus Grows from One Man’s Vision
Much of North Carolina Central University’s history is bound up in the biography of its founder. As we celebrate the campus’s 110th anniversary in 2020, we will hear a great deal about Dr. James E. Shepard’s life and his successes, but we also must understand the hardships he overcame in turning his dream into a reality.
Shepard was a founder, builder, organizer, and administrator, but his work was not limited to institutions. He also remolded minds to become stronger and wiser. He was considered one of the most gifted educators, religious advocates, and race leaders of the first half of the 20th century. Yet, it was largely through faith and hope that he created the school he imagined, which has endured despite financial and social hardships.
Shepard believed in providing students with sound academic training, wide cultural and intellectual horizons, and strong faith. In seeking support for the school, Shepard called on friends and connections from across the United States and from varying backgrounds, noting that it “had no particular creed, but opened to all faiths and is designed especially to meet the needs of the leadership of the race.”
On its opening day, July 5, 1910, the weather was unusually cool, with rain buffering the heat on the newest college campus in the United States. Shepard watched excitedly as the first drenched students arrived to attend the National Religious Training School and Chautauqua for the Colored Race.
As he watched, he may have reflected on the lessons he learned from his parents, the Rev. Augustus and Hattie Whitted Shepard. His father, Augustus Shepard, was born in 1846 to an enslaved couple once owned by a former North Carolina governor. He attended Shaw University and became a prominent minister, eventually serving as pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Durham. His mother, Hattie, was a graduate of Hampton Institute and among the earliest African American educators in North Carolina.
Their son James was born in Raleigh’s Oberlin community on Nov. 3, 1875—a mere 10 years after the close of the Civil War. He was the eldest of 12 siblings, part of the first generation of African Americans born after Emancipation.
The Shepard children learned to read and write in local public schools and were also taught by their mother. In 1890, Shepard entered Shaw University at age 15 to study pharmacy. Graduating in 1894, he carried with him Shaw’s motto, “For Christ and Humanity,” and embarked on a career of public service, as both a pharmacist and religious educator in Virginia and North Carolina.
In 1905, he began working with the International Sunday School Association, whose mission was to promote a standardized Christian education curriculum across denominational lines. Shepard traveled nationally and internationally as a field superintendent for the association, soaking in words of “Negro ministers” and learning a variety of educational models.
He concluded that a complete education should address the mind, the body, and the soul, a philosophy that negotiated a path between the positions of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. He believed that industrial and academic educational approaches were both valid, but that neither was sufficient without religious education. He also felt that to educate the general population of African Americans, one must first educate the black clergy. Thus, he saw the future of the race as resting upon the most respected leader in the African American community: the minister.
The National Religious Training School and Chautauqua for the Colored Race was chartered in 1909. Its purpose was to develop in young men and women “that fine character and sound academic training requisite for real service to the nation.”
Durham was considered an ideal site for the new school because it was a major center of economic, social, and political advancement for African Americans.
Philanthropist Brodie Leonidas Duke donated 20 of the initial 25 acres for the campus on Fayetteville Street, just one mile outside the city limits and within the black part of south Durham called Hayti.
Shepard had considered other sites, but the Durham Merchants Association, along with prominent African American businessmen, physicians, and educators, raised $25,000 to build the school in Durham.
The offered site was sometimes referred to as “the trash heap,” deemed unworkable as a farm due to deep ravines. But supporters vowed to make it work.
Shepard’s wife, Annie Day Shepard, recorded some of the hardships the couple encountered en route to opening the school in 1910. Most notably was the decision by her husband to “sell their home and his interest in their drug store” to support the venture.
The mother of three remarked in an article: “I felt pretty bad about our home. But I couldn’t dream of not going along with him.” She said she told him, “If this is what you want to do, we must do it.”
Annie Day Shepard’s support for her husband’s work continued throughout their marriage, with Annie serving in various roles, including as matron of the dining room, a role she carried out without pay for six years.
Meanwhile, Shepard went well beyond the state borders to find support for the school. The 17 members of his initial advisory board represented 10 states in both the North and South. Many early benefactors were people he had met through his work with the International Sunday School Association.
By 1909, Shepard had $7,000 in donations from friends and supporters in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts and authorized construction to begin.
Several of the earliest buildings, including Avery Auditorium, the Dining Hall, Chidley Hall, Theology Hall, and the president’s new house, were designed by noted African American architect and designer William Sidney Pittman, who was married to Portia M. Washington and was the son-in-law of Booker T. Washington. Pittman also designed the original White Rock Baptist Church that opened in 1910 in the Hayti community.
By 1912, 10 buildings on the new campus had been erected. The hope and promise of the fledgling school rested with the early faculty and staff, who taught and mentored a student body of around 140.
Shepard resolved that costs to students would be kept to a minimum. A notation regarding pre-1915 pricing listed six weeks of courses at $10 for tuition and fees and $3.50 for room and board.
Early course offerings included music, commerce, religion, English, French, German, Greek, mathematics, geography, philosophy, ethics, agriculture, domestic science, basketry, dressmaking, millinery, physical education, and history.
In a 1910 catalog, students were encouraged to maintain a strict standard and code of conduct that included the following stipulations: “All profanity, obscene language, games of chance and pool playing are strictly forbidden. Use of intoxicating liquor or tobacco in any form is forbidden. Leaving the grounds without permission or remaining in the city beyond time limits is forbidden. Absence, without excuse, from recitation or other regular school appointments is forbidden.”
In 1923, the North Carolina legislature was so impressed with the work going on under Shepard that it provided $20,639 in state funding. At that point, the National Training School became Durham State Normal (Teachers) School.
In 1925, upon hearing that state leaders were seeking to establish a higher education liberal arts curriculum for African Americans, Shepard and his chief lobbyist, Charles C. Amey, campaigned for selection of the Durham campus.
During this same period, two fires at the school — on Jan. 28 and Jan. 29, 1925 — destroyed the administrative building, a men’s dormitory, and the dining/classroom hall. Despite the damage, Durham State Normal School became the North Carolina College for Negroes that year. It was the first state-supported liberal arts college for African Americans in the United States.
Shepard’s vision always included training students in moral leadership, as well as academics. Not only were the school’s graduates expected to better the condition of their race, they were to be model citizens representing the virtues of a democratic nation.
Shepard cultivated many relationships near and far to further his goals, including that of the Rev. Howard James Chidley (1878–1966), a financial supporter who served as chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1916 to 1921.
Chidley’s church, the First Congregational Church in Winchester, Mass., provided clothes, linens, food, and operating costs in the early years. After state support began, the church’s donations were earmarked for scholarships, with more than $60,000 collected during the first 50 years.
Chidley spoke often to the student body in Durham and allowed Shepard to preach in his Massachusetts pulpit, often sharing news about the ongoing work and needs of the college. The former all-male Chidley Hall was dedicated in 1952 and was the only structure on campus named in honor of a non-resident of North Carolina.
By 1947, the year of Shepard’s death, the school had been accredited by the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools for Negroes and the American Council on Education. It was then one of only four African American members of the Association of American Colleges.
During his later years, Shepard was often asked to consent to the casting of a bust that could be displayed on campus.
Instead, he would guide visitors to a window overlooking the campus and with a sweeping gesture, say: “This is my monument. If I am not remembered for this, I will be remembered for nothing.”
To learn more about founder James E. Shepard, the university, or Durham’s Civil Rights period, read the "Shepard Papers," which have been digitized and are free and accessible as a part of "Content, Context and Capacity: A Collaborative Large-Scale Digitization Project on the Long Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina" (crdl.usg.edu/collections/ccc/), a project by the Triangle Research Libraries Network.