NCCU Receives First Mellon Foundation Grant 

Posted February 27, 2023, 12:20PM

$500,000 project will explore contributions of alumnae in U.S.

A North Carolina Central University (NCCU) professor has been awarded the institution’s first Mellon Foundation Grant for a project that will enable the institution to recruit humanities majors, develop innovative curriculum, promote its new digital humanities minor and chronicle the stories of women who have positively impacted Durham, the state of North Carolina and the United States.

Rachelle Gold, Ph.D., an associate professor of English, applied for the grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation of New York, the nation’s largest funder of the arts, culture and humanities. Gold was awarded $500,000 for her project titled “Purpose, Persistence and Power: Pioneering African American Women and their Fight for Racial Justice in North Carolina and Beyond.” 

Gold’s proposal was among 26 chosen from 280 applications to Mellon’s Higher Learning Open Call of Civic Engagement and Social Justice projects. Awards for the open call of grants, announced in spring 2022, ranged from $250,000 to $500,000. 

Phillip Brian Harper, program director for higher learning at Mellon, said in a press release that the open call is “designed to highlight the essential role of the humanities – including those disciplines concerned with the interpretation of expressive culture – in addressing our society’s most salient social issues past and present.” Harper also said Mellon seeks to support “not only incisive analytical work, but also projects that creatively envision more just and equitable futures.”

Through the project, Gold plans to help rewrite the history of women at NCCU while highlighting the accomplishments of graduates, including Eva Clayton, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D., and Arenda Wright Allen. In 1992, following a special election, Clayton became the first Black person from North Carolina to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1901. McMillan Cottom is the first NCCU female graduate to win the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, commonly referred to as a ‘Genius Grant.’ Wright Allen is a district court judge in Virginia. 

Other women who will be highlighted include Beverly McIver, a painter and Duke Art professor; Maggie Poole Bryant, 106, NCCU’s oldest alumna; and City of Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal.

“I am excited, overjoyed and jubilant,” Gold said about winning NCCU’s first Mellon grant. “For me, it’s this idea of leaving a legacy by creating a project to honor, celebrate and memorialize the voices and oral histories of women graduates of NCCU in video and audio archives that will exist long after I retire.” 

Gold spent about 300 hours on the application and what motivated her to keep working, in part, was knowing her late father, an American history teacher, would have been proud of her. She also said she was determined to see the process through because women deserve the recognition. 

“We don’t have any statues of women on our campus, and we have only nine buildings named for women,” Gold said. “Women’s legacies at NCCU are much less visible than I want them to be, so I hope the project will cement, highlight and emphasize the crucial role women NCCU graduates have had.” 

Gold, who has taught at NCCU for 15 years, said a Malcolm X quote kept replaying in her mind as she worked on the grant. 

“In 1962, Malcolm said the most disrespected person in American is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman,” Gold said. “As I was applying for the Mellon grant, I thought, it’s been 60 years since Malcolm’s words, and how much has changed?” 

Gold and nine colleagues from the history, language and literature, music and mass communication departments, who have been trained in digital humanities through a Duke-NCCU partnership will teach a course – rooted in learning and reading about Black women of the South and Black women of North Carolina – ten times over the next three years. 

Four campus experts in videography, photography, interviewing and archival research will provide the students with workshops in those skills. Staff from the University of North Carolina’s Southern Oral History Program will offer training in oral history skills and Duke University Digital Humanities graduate students will tutor NCCU students in digital storytelling techniques. All of the women interviewed by students will be NCCU graduates.

The students, also known as Mellon Scholars, will be paid a stipend and visit local museums, including the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham and the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro. The alumnae archive, titled “CLEOPATRA (Collected Lady Eagle Oral History Project & Training Research Acumen),” will be stored permanently on the NCCU server and will be available to the public. At the end of the academic year, a showcase and contest will feature the interviews. 

NCCU Provost and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs David H. Jackson Jr., Ph.D., said he’s excited that the Mellon Foundation grant will enable students to learn about and be exposed to outstanding Black women who matriculated through the university and are making their mark across the country.  

“North Carolina Central University applauds Dr. Rachelle Gold for securing the institution’s first Mellon Foundation Grant,” Jackson said. “I’m confident that her project will have a tremendous impact on our students by providing them with top-tier career-readiness skills, a key tenet of ‘The Eagle Promise,’ and inspiration to achieve greatness as the women they will learn about have done.”

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