Last May Elizabeth City State University recognized some of its oldest living aluma, women who have seen a great deal of change since their early days at the historically black institute of higher learning.
Erma Roberts will agree, things have certainly changed since she was in college.
She started at Elizabeth City State Normal School in 1936 and received her BS in education from Elizabeth City State Teachers College in 1940.
“It was something I always wanted to do,” she said. “I enjoyed learning new things.”
Jean Bischoff, university archivist at Elizabeth City State University, shared a document that states the tuition and fees for a student of that time.
Boarding was just $14 a month, an expense these days seems minor, but in the 1930s, was quite costly. Many girls that lived outside of town boarded with family members closer in, Bischoff said. Quarterly fees for fuel, tuition, lights and room rent added up to $14 per person. Other fees included monthly laundry — $1.25 for a woman and $1.50 for a man.
After graduating from Elizabeth City State Normal School, Roberts taught grades one, two and three for 34 years, starting in 1940, “when schools were not integrated,” she said. “When they became integrated I went back to school to become a teacher of special children.”
Roberts studied Special Education at East Carolina University, and took graduate classes at Syracuse University.
“I enjoyed teaching very much,” she said. “I enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve done what I wanted to do, the things I’ve enjoyed. The joy comes out if you enjoy what you’re doing.”
When Roberts starting out teaching, her monthly salary was just $85.
Lenora Spence also noted that her salary was “very little.”
“But it was good to me,” she said.
Spence used her salary to help out her family.
“I always helped my mother, every month,” she said.
Spence graduated from high school in 1937 and spent a brief time at Elizabeth City State Normal School before getting married. She spent many years as a beautician, and went back to school in 1964 to become a teacher, earning a BS in education in 1968, which enabled her to fulfill her teaching dream.
“I could see the growth (in the children),” she said. “It was just a like a plant. It showed I had helped someone. If I could help someone, then my living would not be in vain. I feel that I had accomplished that.”
As an older student going back to school after four of her children had grown, Spence enjoyed being around the younger students.
“It keeps you younger,” she said. “Association
makes assimilation. It has kept me young at heart.”
The ladies attended Elizabeth City State Normal School at a time when there was no federal aid or student loans to assist them in their schooling or living expenses, and schools were segregated, said Bischoff.
“To talk to the actual people who did this and surmounted all these obstacles, (it was) touching,” she said.
The women were originally interviewed through an oral history project at the school, and Joyce Long, a 1954 graduate herself, came up with an idea to recognize them, Bischoff added.
“We decided we would do something to let the community and the alumni and the university know that we still have alumni around that age, that had been very active at various activities around the university,” Long said.
In May, Elizabeth City State University held the “Leading Ladies” ceremony to celebrate eight of the oldest female ECSU students, including Roberts and Spence.
Six more women were recognized:
Bessie Bartell attended Elizabeth City State Normal School, and graduated from State Teachers College with a Bachelors degree in Elementary Education in 1940. Bartell passed away in February 2014.
Elizabeth Cole graduated from Elizabeth City State Teachers College in 1943 with a degree in elementary education, and taught school in Pasquotank County for 39 years.
Viola Hoffler graduated from Elizabeth City State Teachers College and taught in various areas of North Carolina for nine years before returning to Elizabeth City to care for her family. She passed away in May.
In 1939, Georgia Morgan graduated as valedictorian of the first four-year class of Elizabeth City State Teachers College, and worked in a library.
Leola Morgan graduated in 1936 from Elizabeth City State Normal School, and returned to the State Teachers College to complete her BS in elementary education in 1946. Morgan went on to earn a masters degree in 1954, studying at New York University and Temple University, and worked in schools as both a teacher and a principal, for 43 years. She retired from Sheep-Harney School in 1979.
Odesser Marsh graduated from Elizabeth City State Normal School and went on to Bennett College in Greensboro to complete her BS in Elementary Education. She taught for more than 30 years.
Elizabeth City State University was originally known as Elizabeth City State Colored Normal School from 1891 to 1939 (a “Normal School” is a school for those studying to become teachers). It was then known as Elizabeth City State Teachers College to 1963, when the name changed again, this time to Elizabeth City State College.
It was still focused on education majors, Bischoff said, but branched out to include majors like physical education and music.
Then, in 1969, the college became Elizabeth City State University.