Dr. Rachelle Gold Credit: Courtesy of NCCU

North Carolina Central University officials this week announced that one of their faculty members has been awarded a prestigious $500,000 Mellon Foundation Grant to chronicle and “rewrite” the history of some of the university’s most distinguished women graduates.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York is the nation’s largest funder of the arts, culture and humanities

Rachelle Gold, an NCCU associate professor of English will receive the financial award for her project, “Purpose, Persistence and Power: Pioneering African American Women and their Fight for Racial Justice in North Carolina and Beyond,” according to a school press release.

“I am excited, overjoyed and jubilant,” Gold stated in the release 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.”

NCCU Provost and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs David H. Jackson Jr. stated in the release that 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. 

“I’m confident [Gold’s] 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,” Jackson stated.

Gold will use the funding to revisit the lives and history of women who were educated at the historically Black university and highlight their accomplishments. Part of the project’s focus will include Eva Clayton, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Arenda Wright Allen.

Clayton, following a special election in 1992, became the first Black person from North Carolina to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1901. 

UNC-Chapel Hill professor and New York Times columnist McMillan Cottom is the university’s woman graduate to win the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “Genius Grant.” 

Wright Allen is a district court judge in Virginia. 

The project will also highlight the lives of Beverly McIver, a painter and Duke Art professor; Maggie Poole Bryant, 106, NCCU’s oldest living graduate, along with Durham mayor and trailblazing judge Elaine O’Neal.

Gold has taught at NCCU for 15 years. Her 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. 

Gold spent about 300 hours on the application and says what motivated her to keep working, in part, was knowing her late father, an American history teacher, would have been proud of her. She was also 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.” 

School officials say the project will enable the university to “recruit humanities majors, develop an 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.”

Logistically speaking, the project will incorporate partnerships with NCCU’s neighboring universities: Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill, according to the release.

Gold and nine colleagues from NCCU’s history, language and literature, music and mass communication departments—who have all been trained in digital humanities through a Duke University-NCCU partnership—will teach a course about Black women of the South and Black women of North Carolina over the next three years. 

In addition, four campus experts in videography, photography, interviewing, and archival research will offer workshops to teach students those skills. 

Participating students, who will be recognized as Mellon Scholars. They will receive 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, according to the release. 

The archive, titled “CLEOPATRA,” (Collected Lady Eagle Oral History Project & Training Research Acumen), will be stored permanently on the NCCU server and made available to the public. 

A showcase at the end of the academic year will feature the interviews.

Phillip Brian Harper, program director for higher learning at Mellon, stated in the press release that the call for the grant 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.”

Gold 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 America is the Black woman. As I was applying for the Mellon grant, I thought, ‘it’s been 60 years since Malcolm’s words, and how much has changed?’” 

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