Alfonso Elder: College President and Civil Rights Leader

Elder - credit NCCU Archives

The following article by Andre D. Vann, coordinator of the University Architves and Public History Instructor at NCCU, first appeared in the monthly column in the News and Observer and also in the Triangle Downtowner. The column features essays on Durham history by members of the MoDH’s History Advisory Committee. 

Dr. Alfonso Elder, by moral persuasion and personal example, ­­ taught a generation of college students the importance of working for a cause greater than oneself.

On February 26, 1898, Alfonso “Toby” Elder was born to Lucy Phinizy and Thomas J. Elder, a high school principal in Washington County, Georgia. Elder received his bachelor’s degree in 1921 from Atlanta University and came to North Carolina to teach, first at Bennett College in Greensboro and then Elizabeth City Normal College. In 1923, North Carolina College President James Shepard recruited Elder to teach mathematics. Shepard  received a master’s degree in 1924 and Ed. D. in 1938 from Columbia University. He completed post-graduate work at the University of Chicago and Cambridge University in England. In 1931, Elder married Louise Holmes of Atlanta.

At North Carolina College, Elder served as head of the Graduate Department of Education and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He left in 1943 to become chairman of the graduate department at Atlanta University. After the death of Dr. Shepard, Elder was named president of North Carolina College in 1947.

Whereas Shepard had been reluctant to share authority, Elder introduced a more democratic philosophy and sought input from faculty and students. Elder’s famous motto, “Excellence without excuse: a shared responsibility,” underscored his dedication to participatory democracy in the pursuit of scholarship. Enrollment grew, and the school changed from an all-black college to an integrated one. Within a few years, North Carolina College became one of only 18 black colleges admitted to full membership in the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools.

The 1957 Royal Ice Cream Parlor sit-in in Durham and the 1960 Woolworth’s lunch counter protests in Greensboro energized the NCC campus. Young African Americans were no longer content with the status quo.

In  explaining the significance of the protests, Elder said, “We are seeking a new world order of things. We are seeking respect as complete human beings in every walk of life.” At the regional meeting of the National Student Association, he said that students and faculty members were also citizens with a right to get involved.

Elder’s recognition of the civic roles faculty and students played gave the protest movement a powerful voice, especially in light of the school’s vulnerability as a state-funded institution that could suffer from being seen too closely aligned with the civil rights movement.

Elder’s words and actions made him an activist hidden in plain sight. He never was expected to march himself, but he provided safety, security and freedom to those actively involved in the civil rights movement.

In May 1963, students from NCC participated in the largest mass protests in the Durham’s history. The protests targeted half-a-dozen public restaurants, theaters and other facilities. Over three days more than 1,000 protestors were arrested. On May 21, Mayor Wense Grabarek met with protestors as they rallied at St. Joseph A.M. E. Church. He promised to address their complaints and asked for their support. By July, ninety percent of Durham’s restaurants, all eleven motels, the swimming pools, libraries and Chamber of Commerce had agreed to desegregate because of the pressure exerted by civil rights activists.

Elder retired on September 1, 1963, the same year as desegregation of many of Durham’s businesses, banks and city schools.

On August 7, 1974, at the age of 76, this prominent educator and  quiet civil rights leader died in Durham’s Lincoln Hospital. NCCU’s Alfonso Elder Student Union is named in his honor. Through his leadership, Elder taught a new generation of college students that freedom, justice and equality do not come free and must be paid with sacrifice in school and in the community at large.

*Photo credit: NCCU Archives


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