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North Carolina Central University: No Ordinary, Common Barnyard Fowl

“That audacious belief of our people – that in most ordinary men and women there reside the most extraordinary possibilities, and that, if we keep the doors of opportunity open to them, they will amaze us with their achievements.” Dr. James E. Shepard

Posted By Ayana Hernandez on Jun 05, 2024

Dr. James E. Shepard, a prominent pharmacist businessman and founder and president of the National Institute and Training School for Chautauqua, laid the groundwork for what is now  North Carolina Central University (NCCU). Consider the institution “an institution”—one whose establishment was a national “first,” as the first state-supported liberal arts college established for African Americans in the nation. Its century-plus legacy evokes lasting traditions. The founding campus matriarch, Annie Day Robinson Shepard, the wife of James E. Shepard, etched her name in history for her contributions to the school, including penning the alma mater, “Dear Old N.CC.” Influential in her own right, she was also the granddaughter of Thomas Day, whose workshop became the largest furniture manufacturer in North Carolina by 1850.

A black and white photo depicts the founder of North Carolina Central University, James E. Shepard.

NCCU would not be here today if it weren't for Dr. James E. Shepard and Annie Day Robinson Shepard, his wife. Photo: Durham County Library Historical Photo Collection

Since its founding on July 5, 1910, the Durham university has maintained its rank as one of the top Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Consider that Shepard, co-founder of North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, had deep ties to a religious movement and anchored one of the wealthiest corridors for people of color in the early 20th century's Durham’s Black Wall Street. His foresight and vision grounded the university, which has had name changes over the years but remained grounded in its motto of “Truth and Service.” After its founding, the school transformed to be the National Training School in 1915, North Carolina College for Negroes in 1923, North Carolina College at Durham in 1947 and North Carolina Central University in 1969.

Fast-forward to today, and Shepard’s vision is celebrated, honored and remembered throughout campus—from the administration building and university library that both bear his name to the bronze, life-size statue adored as a prime photo opp location by students,  alumni and visitors alike. Stroll through a campus whose 8,000 students boldly declare, “This is my HBCU,” and explore its sacred celebrations and community traditions that invite everyone into the Eagle family.

The statue of James E. Shepard stands tall in front of a building on NCCU's Campus.

Shepard's influence is visible throughout NCCU's campus. Photo: Discover Durham


NCCU shines with must-sees throughout its more than 130 acres in the Hayti and College Heights historic districts. With eight buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the university abounds with landmark sights. The founder’s home, referenced as Shepard House and the Shepard Bell, which he rang during his presidency to signal the change between classes for students and instructors, is still on campus. A residence hall bears the name of Annie Day Shepard. Nods are due to NCCU’s rich Centennial Chapel, a structure that first served as Holy Cross Church. Established in 1939, the church was one of the first African American Catholic congregations in Durham. Centennial Garden was built in 2010 to commemorate the university’s 100th anniversary and includes a fountain, seasonal flowers and a pergola. Visitors should stop at Shepard Library to learn more about NCCU and see a piece of Civil Rights history—an F.W. Woolworth lunch counter where protesters rallied against the store’s segregationist policies.

With NCCU alumni including three MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Fellows –social activist Rev. Dr. William Barber III, sociologist Dr. Tressie McMillian Cottom and chemist Dr. Ibrahim Cissé—and the stellar NCCU School of Law whose halls have taught legal giants including Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and North Carolina Governor Mike Easley, the university is an educational powerhouse. With the 120-hour requirement for students to give back to the local Triangle community, NCCU delivers on The Eagle Promise, enabling its scholars to soar.

Plants surround the main sign on North Carolina Central University's campus.

A visit to NCCU's campus means experiencing an important piece of Black history. Photo: Discover Durham

When Traditions Become the Standard…

Coupled with NCCU’s championship-winning Mid-Eastern Athletics Conference (MEAC) athletic programs, high-ranked, award-winning academic programs also draw people to the university’s legendary campus life and activities, sought-after community programming and signature attractions. Pull up your calendar and we guarantee it will be plentiful with can’t-miss happenings. Let’s go!

Places and Spaces

The McDougald-McClendon Arena is home to the Alex Rivera Athletics Hall of Fame, where honors are posted on the main level, saluting alumni greats, such as NBA All-Star Sam Jones and current head men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton and several NFL greats, including Ernie Barnes and Doug Wilkerson, who played in NCCU’s storied O’Kelley-Riddick Stadium.

Sun sets on O'Kelly-Riddick stadium at North Carolina Central University.

Watch the Eagles battle it out on the field at O'Kelly-Riddick Stadium. Photo: Discover Durham

The NCCU Art Museum, a place for annual specialty art exhibits, contains students’ works and a permanent exhibit with original creations from acclaimed African American 20th-century greats and contemporary artists Romare Beard, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence and Minnie Evans.

A man and a woman look at colorful art on a gallery wall. In the background, a woman points at a painting on the wall.

Check out art at NCCU Art Museum. Photo: NCCU / D.D. Royal

The middle of NCCU’s campus is home to the Library Bowl. This sacred ground is where student life takes shape and comes alive with the institution’s energetic Eagles. It’s called Eagle Pride, Amplified. It is also the communal area made special by members of National Pan-Hellenic Council and other Greek organizations who gather there to converse, step and stroll. The Bowl is where the infamous 10:40 Break goes down—a dedicated time each Tuesday and Thursday when no classes are scheduled, and a campus DJ leads an array of student engagements. Remember the Library Bowl for Homecoming(epic!).

In 2022, ribbon was cut on the New Student Center, a 100,200 square foot hub for action, activity where students, alumni and the community gather and engage. Whether it’s a concert featuring an award-winning artist or band, high energy student performance, banquet program or lecture from a notable public figure, the facility has a Chick-fil-A and Panda Express.

The NCCU Student Center lights up at dusk on campus.

The student center has it all, from food and drinks to events and gatherings. Photo: NCCU

It’s a Vibe

Returning for “The Ultimate Homecoming Experience” at NCCU is akin to a family reunion, a cultural praise party and a glorious exchange of Black excellence–all at once. Call it a revival of alumni, students, community members and friends of the university, complete with a Gospel, R&B and hip-hop concert, drag show, choir ball (talent show), Greek step show, football game and massive tailgating. The weekend is marked complete with a Founder’s Day Convocation that honors Dr. Shepard and alumni celebrating their 50-year reunion—called Golden Eagles—and other Eagles who come back home for milestone class reunion milestones.

Lean in: Homecoming culminates with what has become the epicenter of an ultimate Homecoming experience. Thousands descend into the Library Bowl at the close of Saturday’s game for the largest turn-up at an HBCU, complete with music to match every memorable moment. If  you’ve been, you know, you’re telling a friend and can't wait to return the following year.

Four alumni pose for a photo at NCCU's "The Ultimate Homecoming Experience."

NCCU's homecoming really is an experience like no other. Photo: NCCU

Elevating the Intellectual Climate

Throughout the academic year from August to May, the university brings internationally recognized speakers to campus for its Rock the Lyceum Series and other specialty lectures. In recent years, these thought-provoking, free discussions have featured the likes of music executives, entertainment moguls, public intellectuals, Fortune 500 business leaders, actors and professional athletes. The best part–they are open to the community.

The national award-winning Department of Theatre regularly presents critically acclaimed productions and hosts master classes and workshops with on- and off-Broadway performers and film actors—faculty and students have even been on stage at the International Black Theatre Festival. “Fame,” “The Drums of Sweetwater,” “Chicken & Biscuits,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and “Dreamgirls,” are just a few of their productions. The Dance Program’s Reparatory Dance Company holds concerts and featured performances at Triangle area museums.

Home to the top-ranking Jazz Studies program at an HBCU and winner of the 2023 Jack Rudin Jazz Championship at Lincoln Center, you must catch a concert and the annual jazz festival presented by NCCU’s award-winning Jazz Studies program. Jazz greats and artists-in-residence Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo add notes of influence to the department’s powerful brand, that is complete with partnerships with the Monterey Jazz Festival.

With a rich and never-forgotten history, North Carolina Central University will continue to be a jewel for Durham, the Triangle Region, North Carolina, the country and beyond for its assets that attract students, elevate alumni and engage the community. The century-plus-old vision that guided the pharmacist, educator and business genius to open an institution whose purpose was “the development of young men and women of the character and sound academic training requisite for real service to the nation” is still purposeful today. It’s apropos that the mascot is an Eagle as the university offers that perfect place to reaffirm, relive and reimagine—no matter your connection or desired affiliation.

About the Author

Ayana Hernandez - Freelance Writer

A Nutmeg State (Connecticut) native and Tar Heel State transplant, Ayana Davis Hernandez is a lifelong storyteller whose career began in magazine publishing. She is a senior communications and marketing strategist who enjoys her Bull City community's beauty and cultural offerings.