“This Is Our Community” With Help From its Historic Black University, Elizabeth City Confronts the Tragedy it Tried to PreventHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights, Southern history, North Carolina, student activism
Melissa Stuckey, a history professor at ECSU, has become a leading resource on Elizabeth City history since joining the university four years ago. She said the university has a rich history of activism. Notably, ECSU students joined lunch counter protests one week after the Greensboro Four.
In 1963, hundreds of students from ECSU and local high schools picketed downtown demanding that all businesses desegregate.
Far earlier, Stuckey points to Annie E. Jones, a 1901 graduate of the university and a teacher and principal in the city’s schools. Jones worked covertly for Black women’s suffrage, and after the 19th Amendment was passed, she organized literacy classes to prepare Black women to pass literacy tests that had been designed to disenfranchise the Black vote.
“I think that we can see our roots of being strong, Black activists even before the Civil Rights Movement, when I think about women like her,” Stuckey said.
The university is now preparing the next generation of activists, which she says includes understanding the history of Elizabeth City and the surrounding area. It’s not enough to know dates and events, she says. Stuckey wants her students to understand how events connect to each other and see the impacts of social and political changes over time.
She talks about the urban renewal movement in the city in the 1960s and 1970s, and how this led to many buildings that housed Black businesses now lying vacant. She talks about one of the historical Black neighborhoods in the city, just adjacent to the university. It’s the neighborhood where Andrew Brown Jr. grew up, and a drive through it finds several vacant lots, where the city came into possession of land and has not redeveloped it.
She wants her students to engage with the history, recognize systemic forces at work, and identify the impacts. That, she hopes, will prepare them to go out in the world and activate changes in society — changes, she says, that can, with some pain, move the city forward.
“And it is painful, because our history is a painful history,” she said. “So our growth is going to include discomfort. And I hope that I’m giving my students the tools and vocabulary and critical thinking skills to interrogate the world that they’re in, to interrogate the past, to make connections where there are connections, and to not make easy connections — not make facile connections, and not just jump from one century to another and assume that they can do that without really critically engaging with everything that’s happening in between.”