By Thelma D. (Harper) Jones
In May 1972, I, Thelma Doris Harper Jones, graduated with both pride and honors from Durham College, a private junior college of business in Durham, NC, with an Associate in Applied Science Degree (AAS). Considering the college’s historical background in graduating more than 5000 students from 1947 to 1980, it could be dubbed a “HBJCU” (Historically Black Junior Colleges and Universities). The college was created well before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, educated primarily African Americans and left a rich legacy of matriculating many leaders in the fields of business and many other professions.
While at Durham College, I felt that I gave as much to the school as the school gave to me and was active in student affairs, including serving on the yearbook staff, being the reigning Miss Durham College, and serving as president of the Delta Beta Chi Honor Society. So, it was no surprise that our beloved Paul D. Harrison, Sr., Registrar and Chair, Computer Science Department, who transitioned on Saturday, August 15, 2020, would invite me to babysit for their two young children, Glenda and Paul, Jr. with whom I am still in touch. The Harrisons not only provided me with a home away from home experience but also welcomed me like a family member. The money earned from babysitting helped tremendously with my college expenses. My parents, Junior Earl and Lizzie Mae Banks Harper, who were struggling sharecropper farmers with eight children, a paternal grandmother, and a paternal great grandfather to feed in one household, were faced with challenging times and rarely sent me any money during my two years of matriculation at the school. Consequently, I once cried like a baby when my parents advised me that they could not afford the next quarter’s tuition. I remember it vividly, as it was like being diagnosed with a cancer when they told me in that disappointing voice that “we just don’t have the money so you will have to come home,” which was not an option for me. The thought of returning to those long hard hours in the hot scorching sun in the tobacco, corn and back-breaking cotton fields was out of the question.
As a result, I took my tears to the Financial Aid Officer and was ultimately awarded a nonpaid work-study and assigned to the Secretarial Science Department with Dr. Rose T. Vaughn with whom I am still in close touch with to this day. Then one day, Mr. Harrison introduced me to the Speights who were looking for a part-time clerk at their popular Speight’s Auto Service Station which was a stone’s throw from the school. The kids at school used to tease and ask me if I was pumping gas. While it was embarrassing, I remained undaunted by their constantly teasing me. It turned out that the Speights were from Snow Hill, NC, my hometown, so we had an instant connection. Ms. Theodore Speight Manley would later commend me and say that I had “successfully collected more overdue bills as a part-time clerk in a few months than she had been able to do in the past couple of years.” For graduation, the Speights would present me with my first camera which helped to inspire my love for photography and the importance of documenting things.
At graduation, I was awarded the “Best All Around Female Student,” among other recognitions, and was poised to assume the world of work in a business arena. By now, and unbeknownst to me, I had begun to develop a deep and abiding sense of gratitude to Durham College and the amazing support system that I had enjoyed. I would eventually become a certified Safe Sitter (babysitter) instructor for the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly Youth Activities Task Force and would teach more than 80 SW youth and a Girl Scouts Troop from NW to become babysitters. I felt that if babysitting helped me through some challenging times and enabled me to develop a trusting network while earning extra money, I knew that it would help SW youth as well, especially since so many youth are latchkey kids or have to watch their younger siblings. I often attributed my success as an instructor to the real-life experiences that I had as a babysitter while enrolled at Durham College.
Upon graduation, I came to Washington, DC with a deep sense of pride and appreciation in knowing that Durham College had increased my confidence and adequately prepared me for the world of work. I accepted an entry level support position at the World Bank in June 1972 and retired from the World Bank Group in 2005 as one of the principal founders of the World Bank’s institutional outreach program. Serving as the voice of the World Bank in the local community, I carried out the World Bank’s poverty reduction mission in the areas of education reform, youth employment, homelessness, and volunteer management, among others. From the onset of my arrival in DC, I immediately became involved with the Washington, DC Metro Chapter of the Durham College Alumni Association and I continue to serve in leadership roles of increasing responsibilities with the Durham College Alumni Association. More importantly, I organized the first Durham College Alumni Reunion in Washington, DC in June 1988 and more than 200 alumni, faculty members, children of alumni and friends of the college came from throughout the United States. Since then we have held 15 college alumni reunions in New Jersey, Norfolk, VA, Wilmington, NC, aboard a Carnival Cruise to the Islands, several in Durham, and the Washington, DC area. Today, our reunions welcome alums from Alaska, Oklahoma, Upstate New York, Afghanistan, and throughout the eastern seaboard. I would later enjoy a leadership role in every college reunion with the association regularly recognizing my commitment and dedication to Durham College and the preservation of its legacy which is being archived through memorabilia, artifacts, and oral interviews. The Durham College collection will be housed for the world to see at the North Carolina Collection at Durham’s main library in the heart of downtown.
Despite the college’s success of graduating more than 5000 students who are now represented in virtually every walk of life, very few people had ever heard of Durham College, which closed in 1980. My dream became to one day put Durham College on the map. After all, the college was founded by Dr. Lucinda McCauley Harris, an African American woman in 1947. Starting on a shoe-string budget and an amazing vision with five students in a five-bedroom house with five used typewriters on Pine Street (now South Roxboro Street) in Durham, Dr. Harris possessed an indefatigable belief that there was a considerable need for a school designed to prepare youth for successful business careers. In filling that gap and being unapologetic in her conviction during an era when African Americans were struggling with their dignity and civil rights and women, especially African American women, were voiceless, Dr. Harris defied the odds and pushed forward, overcoming many hurdles and obstacles, and making her challenging efforts more worthwhile. As the school grew in recognition and vigor, Dr. Harris acquired more space to accommodate the student enrollment growth. One such building included the Muhammad Ali Physical Education Building on Fayetteville Street which welcomed the legendary world heavyweight champion to the “Bull City” and to the campus to attend the dedication of the building. As you may know, the building at Durham was the first building in the United States to be named in his honor. This and other achievements such as admission of veterans, international recruitment and the inclusion of more degree programs prompted Durham College to be regarded as one of the premier junior colleges on the East Coast. As a result, when many students graduated from Durham College, they were offered and guaranteed secure jobs with benefits, as recruitment was held annually by various divisions of the Federal Government in Washington, DC, banks, and other large business employers.
The dream to put Durham College on the map became a pressing thought that ultimately became a reality. In November 2018, I met John Schelp, a native Washingtonian, at an official dinner in Anacostia during the Georgetown University Breast Cancer Conference on Environment. Schelp has lived in Durham and worked at the National Institutes of Health for more than 30 years. Sadly, he had never heard of the college as well which reminded me again, that I had a personal commitment to change the paradigm thinking about the school and to make sure that Dr. Lucinda McCauley Harris, Durham’s native daughter, be recognized, lifted, and celebrated as part of the 150th Anniversary events of Durham which occurred in 2019. Schelp, a member of the Durham Sesquicentennial Honors Commission, and I worked closely together in recommending Dr. Harris for consideration to be honored during the 150th Anniversary. The fact that Dr. Harris, an educator, made the list to be recognized by the city’s Sesquicentennial Honors Commission was amazing and indeed no small feat given the many Durhamites who were worthy of this honor. She was recognized with the likes of renown Historian John Hope Franklin and Civil Rights Activist and Episcopal Priest Rev. Pauli Murray. Durham College made the list of 150 names and Dr. Harris made the short list as one of the twenty-nine late Durhamites to be recognized, which was nothing short of righting a wrong and honoring a powerful woman and her legacy for changing and making the difference in the lives of over 5000 students, many of whom were making major contributions to the economy of Durham and the surrounding jurisdictions. For me and others, it was a long-held dream come true to see the recognition for the lives she generously touched through their affiliation with Durham College either as a student, faculty member, staff or part of the Durham College’s broader community of supporters.
I continue to salute the dedicated and committed work of John Schelp and the Durham Sesquicentennial Honors Commission and the Durham City Council for recognizing the importance of awarding its unsung heroes and “sheroes” their proper respect, realizing that it’s better late than never and realizing that what Durham finally did could be a model or blueprint for other cities to follow, especially in this era of racial equality. Dr. Harris had a tremendous impact on many from a local, regional, and international perspective.
The change in the educational environment during the 1970s prompted a decline in private schools and junior college enrollment. Yet after having many great achievements and defining the path of more than 5000 graduates, Durham College closed its doors in 1980. Although the school no longer exists, the fruits of Dr. Lucinda McCauley Harris’ labor have been manifested in various ways through its prominent and outstanding graduates, like me, if I must say so myself, in virtually every walk of life. I feel so proud to be a Durham College alumna, as it contributed to a major part of my more than 33-year career journey at the World Bank Group in Washington, DC and the more than three decades of civic engagement and community building in various leadership capacities, including as the founder of the nationally recognized Thelma D. Jones Breast Cancer Fund in Washington, DC. This proudness is also reflected by being the founder/organizer of the first Durham College Reunion in 1988 and serving enthusiastically in an ongoing leadership capacity to help ensure the preservation and perpetuation of Dr. Harris’ legacy as well as the 15 reunions we’ve enjoyed since 1988. At the 2019 Durham College Alumni Reunion held in Durham, I was honored with the inaugural Lucinda McCauley Harris Honors Medallion presented by former College Dean Constance Sartor Walker, J.D. I was also honored to be congratulated by Dr. James W. Hill, Former President of Durham College.
Thanks to the Sesquicentennial Honors Commission and the Durham City Council for these honors to Durham College and Dr. Lucinda McCauley Harris. A memorial will be erected in Durham, NC for each of the 29 names included on the short list for future generations to know of and honor Dr. Lucinda McCauley Harris and my revered Durham College.