HOMECOMING: Aggies return to Greensboro as university chooses new leader

by Jordan Green

It’s possible that Derrick Giles, a genial patron at Natty Greene’s bar wearing a heavy white knit sweater and sporting an unstyled Afro of modest length, wouldn’t make a strong initial impression. At first blush he looks like a man who is mostly content, rounded in knowledge and well adjusted. In a word, an ordinary guy.

He leans over the bar and signals for the bartender, a young woman with a blond ponytail whose service has been prompt even if her dour expression hints that she won’t be sorry when her shift ends.

“Which of these three do you think is true of me?” Giles asks. “One, I’m an ordained minister. Two, I lost my virginity in my mid-twenties. And three, I graduated at the top of my class in engineering.”

Without much thought the bartender correctly guesses the third choice. Giles nods with satisfaction.

Then she adds: “My second guess was going to be you lost your virginity in your mid-twenties.”

A member of NC A&T University’s Class of ’92, Giles has reason to be proud. The university boasts of being the leader in graduating minorities with degrees in engineering and technology. Ronald McNair, the astronaut who died in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion, graduated magna cum laude from A&T in 1971 with a bachelors degree in physics. Giles has done pretty well himself, now working as a manager for Enpulse Energy Conservation, a Greensboro company that specializes in helping large building facilities operate with more efficiency.

Giles comes across as an expert on all things A&T. And yet he’s signed up for a professional development class in Chapel Hill on Saturday so he doesn’t know if he’ll make it for the Aggies’ homecoming game against the Howard University Bison.

The man at Giles’ side, Leslie Hannibal, met his wife at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Hannibal’s in-laws are Aggies. A certified public accountant, he recently left a job in New York with an ink manufacturing company to move to Greensboro. He doesn’t know if he’ll take part in homecoming activities. What he loves about his wife, he says, is that she has an independent mind and doesn’t necessarily get swept up in the collective passions of her family – ‘ most of them avid participants in what the university bills “the greatest homecoming on earth.”

Still, the two men make a pretty good case for the annual event’s importance.

“Greensboro has a history of strong connection to civil rights,” Giles says. “A&T has been a big part of that history. Back in the sixties Greensboro was notable for activism. Jesse Jackson went here. Among the places in the South you think of Selma and Washington, DC. Greensboro is one of those places.”

The matter of the four A&T students who sparked a wave of sit-ins across the country with their dignified civil disobedience at Woolworth’s in 1960 is mentioned. How could it not be? It’s the single event that gives the university, maybe the city itself, an identity and a place of international importance.

“I think that’s the prelude to the whole civil rights movement,” Hannibal offers.

Giles continues: “That’s what contributes to the spirit of closeness of the alumni.

“People come from all over the country,” he adds. “At some point, you have to go. On the simplest level, it’s just a damn good party.”

At convocation on Thursday afternoon Crystal Williams, the reigning “Miss A&T,” carries greetings to the assembled audience in Harrison Auditorium after the posting of the colors and the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” She gives a speech redolent of the civil rights faith of the generation that dismantled Jim Crow segregation. With exquisite cadence and phrasing she calls for socially responsible leadership in times of “political unrest and financial scandal.” She invokes “the glorious march to Greensboro in 1893” after A&T’s founding in the basement of Raleigh’s Shaw University following the passage of the second Morrill Act, which required states with segregated educational systems to establish separate land grant universities for African Americans.

“As our elders have said, ‘We have come a mighty long ways,'” she says before calling for a rededication: “May we be taken back to the day ‘Aggie pride’ meant revolution and reform.”

The hip-hop generation that comprises the Class of ’07 has the burden of having matriculated in the shadow of a generation of black leaders that shattered the barriers of segregation, is now gradually retiring and collecting their accolades. Case in point is Henry E. Frye, a member of the Class of ’53 and North Carolina’s first black state supreme court justice, who is being honored today.

Throughout the ceremony he scribbles in a notebook from his seat at the rostrum, glancing up only occasionally.

Provost Janice Brewington introduces him by saying, “Justice Frye has always been a drum major for social justice and human rights.” She notes “an increase in economic development in Greensboro and access to financial lending” as a result of Frye founding Greensboro National Bank, and “changes in the law as a result of his leadership” as the first African American elected to the NC House of Representatives in the 20th century. “Justice Frye, we are indeed honored’….”

Furiously scribbling in the notebook, Frye jerks his chin upward in alarm at the word “honored.” Then he takes the podium and gives a succinct and detailed report of all the rituals that have transpired, persons recognized and honors given in the ceremony thus far.

“The purpose in life is not to be happy,” he says, “but to matter, to be productive, to be useful and to have made a positive difference in other people’s lives. Happiness is a byproduct.”

A&T’s reputation as a bulwark in the struggle for black progress is apparent in the vending area set up in the parking lot of War Memorial Stadium on Lindsay Street, where 56-year-old Lynn Ware of Oklahoma City, Okla. sets up his booth earlier in the day amongst the food stands and purveyors of sunglasses and licensed Aggie sweatshirts. On recommendation of a friend, Ware is bringing his black history memorabilia to A&T’s homecoming for the first time this year. He’s just come from Howard University’s homecoming and is destined for Florida A&M’s next.

There are framed covers of Ebony magazine devoted to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the success of “The Jeffersons” TV show. There are concert posters for Charlie Parker at Birdland in New York and a double bill of Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder raising money for blind children in Kingston, Jamaica. Then there are the unhappy artifacts of oppression. A slave auction notice. An advertisement for Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco that features a stereotyped scene of a black child with exaggerated lips and bug eyes seated on the steps of a rundown general store and eating a slice of watermelon.

“Typically, I don’t do well in the deeper South because the images I sell are painful,” Ware says. “My own perspective is, it’s history; don’t draw hatred from it. Howard has a high level of intellect. I mean, you can’t just walk off the street and get accepted. I would say that those schools that have a rich history and have a very strong alumni are places where I do well. Howard is at the top. Tuskegee is a traditional and strong school. Prairie View outside of Houston didn’t feel that way.”

Beyond intellectual traditions, historically black colleges and universities also nourish rivalries over football (the occasion for homecoming, after all) and attendance.

“I’m sure all the other universities would say they have the greatest homecoming on earth,” says Michelle Jinks, spokeswoman for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in Virginia Beach, Va. “Everybody in black college football thinks theirs is the best. We don’t keep up with their attendance figures. Everybody’s homecomings are usually sold out.”

Jinks graduated from Florida A&M in the early 1990s and worked at the university after graduation.

“When I was working there they had 33,954 people and their stadium holds 25,000,” she says. “That was a record for them. North Carolina A&T is pretty popular. Howard’s homecoming, although they don’t have a big stadium, is popular because there’s a lot of celebrities there.”

Though exact figures are difficult to come by A&T spokeswoman Nettie Rowland will estimate Monday that 40,000 people participated in homecoming activities over the weekend. And only two hours before the football game between A&T and the visiting Howard Bison on Saturday, Aggie Stadium will sell out its 22,000 seats, according to head of university relations Mable Scott.

Homecoming generates about $10,000 for the city of Greensboro in licensing fees for the roughly 100 vendors who create a temporary bazaar outside War Memorial Stadium, not to mention the city’s share of sales tax monies remitted from the state. The total amount likely does not make up for the cost incurred by the city to pay overtime to Greensboro police for directing traffic -‘ estimated by Assistant City Manager Ben Brown to be between $50,000 and $90,000.

A&T’s homecoming is one of eight “partnership” events for which the city assumes partial responsibility. Given the net outflow of funds from the city budget, homecoming might be considered an economic development investment.

“Historically, the whole event brings in ten to fifteen million dollars to the economy,” Brown says on Friday. “The alumni have already come in today and will be staying until Sunday, living in our hotels, eating in our restaurants and buying from our shops.”

Of course, the wealth generated for Greensboro is but a side benefit of the university’s overall educational enterprise, which tends to generate wealth for its students.

On Friday afternoon ochre leaves pirouette from the clear sky as business alumni mill around an open tent outside Merrick Hall, eating from plates of fried chicken, barbecued ribs, macaroni and cheese, baked beans and coleslaw. Dean of the School of Business and Economics Quiester Craig, a large man with a billed cap propped on his head, circulates through the crowd, a wide grin emphasizing the sparkle of his bespectacled eyes.

Jamal Mention and Joe Robinson, respectively from the classes of ’02 and ’97, chat in the dabbled shade. Both work for pharmaceutical companies: Mention for Novartis in Greensboro and Robinson for GlaxoSmithKline in Raleigh.

“This is the best business school on the east coast,” Mention says. “Looking at UNC-Chapel Hill, UNCG and UNC-Charlotte, A&T by far and away has the best business and marketing program. It’s the interaction with the professors, the classroom size and the internships.”

Kristie Wright, an agricultural economics major from the Class of ’99 who now works in international finance at Verizon Business in Atlanta, says she comes for both the practical opportunities to network and for the chance to visit old friends and reminisce.

Many of the students likewise take advantage of the opportunity to network with alumni. One of them is a 24-year-old graduate student named Wesley Ellis who studies supply chain and works in the dean’s office. He wears a hand-lettered shirt that pleads, “Help me stop the swelling,” referring to the expansion of knowledge that comes from studying.

“They’re definitely very approachable,” Ellis says of the alumni. “They’re definitely going to give you some positive feedback or tell you who you can talk to, to get your answer. Nine times out of ten they’re looking to network too.”

It would be hard to find a more distinguished crowd of alumni than that gathered in the Victoria Ballroom at the Sheraton Greensboro on Friday evening. The invitation list for the chancellor’s donor reception this year has been whittled down to those who have made $1,000 contributions to the university, up from $500 the previous year. The university leadership will thank the alumni, one of them a member of the Class of ’47 who has just signed a check for $25,000, and ask them to dig deeper. An eight-year capital campaign ends in December 2007, and the university aims to have $100 million to invest in scholarships, faculty and staff development, academic programs and other needs.

Velma Speight-Buford, a member of the Class of ’53 and chairwoman of the board, takes up the appeal.

“Our students are leaving with debt that you cannot believe,” she says. “They’ll be paying it back for the next fifteen to twenty years. Each one reach one, that’s my thing. Get that person to give what you gave. Can you do that?”

Rosa Beasley, a member of the Class of ’49 who is retired from the Federal Aviation Administration and who is the unofficial matriarch of the Washington DC alumni chapter, nods.

“Yes, ma’am.”

The warmth shown to Speight-Buford does not automatically extend to the interim chancellor, Lloyd V. Hackley, and he appears to recognize the expectation that he will show deference to the alumni and not the other way around. He jokes and uses profane language. He does his best to entertain. He wisely steers clear of lofty platitudes, for the most part.

Hackley, former president of the NC Community College system, was recruited by University of North Carolina system President Erskine Bowles to lead A&T after the departure of Jim Renick for the period until the university appoints a permanent chancellor. Hackley tells the alumni that tomorrow the Alumni Event Center will be officially named for Speight-Buford, adding, “You need to be there by eleven-fifteen. You ought to be awake and sober by then.”

“We don’t drink,” Beasley snaps. “What’s wrong?”

Then Hackley explains how he was persuaded to come out of retirement – or rather, to put his lucrative consulting business on hold.

“I was perfectly content and making an enormous amount of money, and I’m not ashamed to say it,” he says. “If you give me a choice between jabbing a sharp stick in my eye and leading another institution, I’ll think about it. First, I should ask, ‘How far are you going to jab the stick, how many times are you going to turn it, and how long are you going to leave it there?’ If you’d mentioned any other institution, I would have said ‘no’ and it would have an H-E double L in front of it. Why did you have to say A&T?”

Then Hackley mentions a recent honor bestowed on the university by Black Enterprise magazine.

“I want to clear up something,” he says. “North Carolina A&T is the third-best institution in the country for African-American students. Some people say it’s the third-best HBCU. I want you to say that Harvard’s on the list. UNC-Chapel Hill’s on the list. NC State’s on the list. They’re below us. We’re number one in granting PhD’s in engineering to African-American students.”

Murmurs of agreement float through the room.

He continues: “People have been sending me a lot of letters about who to hire and fire. I’ve got a stack of them. I don’t want anybody to think A&T is as good an institution as it can be.”

“We know that,” Beasley answers.

Then Speight-Buford takes the podium again, and the audience focuses its attention. They’ve been waiting to hear a report on the search for a new chancellor, and she does not disappoint them. The search committee chose three candidates three weeks ago and one has dropped out, she says. Bowles interviewed the two remaining finalists on Thursday. The president’s choice is subject to approval by the UNC Board of Governors at its next meeting.

“After November tenth we will know who our new chancellor will be,” Speight-Buford says. “The president has the right to accept one or reject all. If he accepts one, that will be our chancellor. If he rejects all, we start from scratch. I’ve been told what we should have and what we don’t need. Velma has done her job.”

The chairwoman adds: “If we get a person we don’t like we’ve got to live with [him].”

“We got a dud,” Beasley echoes.

“If Jesus had applied,” Speight-Buford says, “he would not have satisfied our Aggies.”

Sitting with two other members of the Washington DC chapter and a lone representative of the Queens chapter, Beasley declares: “A&T is the best thing in the world.” She turns to the stoic looking gentleman to her left.

“Obie, were you a farmboy?” she asks.

Barry Obie was a farmboy, and he grew up in Roxboro.

“He used to be a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force,” Beasley says. “Now he’s flying jets for an airline.” She turns to her right.

“This young lady is married to the smartest engineer to come out of A&T.”

Ruth Carter Wallace, member of the Class of ’56, describes how her husband designed heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems for the US Army Corps of Engineers in a career that took him to Turkey, Thailand, Japan and Saudi Arabia. In Japan, a driver sent to collect Wallace’s husband turned and walked away because he didn’t believe it possible for a black man to hold such a position.

“When he went to Japan he was the project director and he was the only African American,” Wallace says. “[His colleagues] would say, ‘Where did you say you went to school?’ ‘North Carolina A&T.’ ‘Where?’ This was unheard of in 1968. They were from MIT.”

Beasley introduces Elijah Thorne as “one of our Aggie millionaires.”

Originally from Rocky Mount, Thorne (Class of ’64) founded Grayhound Trash Removal with his wife, Marilyn (Class of ’63), almost four decades ago. Their children run the business now. A daughter graduated from A&T in 1991.

Elijah Thorne disavows the millionaire label, but notes: “We’re from Prince Georges County, Maryland. Ebony magazine wrote an article about it being the richest black county in the nation.”

Fannie Ruth Joyner-Springer has returned to A&T for her 50th anniversary as an alumna. She recalls how she found her way to A&T after growing up in Pitt County.

“I was a very poor girl,” she says. “My father was deceased. My two choices were A&T and Bennett, but Bennett was too expensive. I worked in the student cafeteria. God is good.”

After graduation, Joyner-Springer moved to New York and landed a job with the city Department of Hospitals, and then with the Board of Education.

“Nothing wrong with it, but I could have been washing dishes,” she says. “I could have been scrubbing floors. A&T meant everything to me.”

The next day the parking lots surrounding Aggie Stadium fill with tailgaters. The announcer’s voice carries over the cacophony of a dozen competing mobile bass sound systems. Middle-aged women recline in deck chairs within the wide beds of pickups. Youngsters toss footballs. The air fills with the smell of grilled hamburgers. For a price, a heaping plate of soul food can be had from any number of vendors. Those without tickets who want to check on the game congregate at a spot near the end zone where one can catch a sidelong view of the scoreboard with its giant video screen.

Derrrick Ervin, a member of the Class of ’01 who has returned from Tampa, Fla. for the first time in three years, watches the action with a friend, junior Tashia Moore. He’s not exactly pleased.

“This team isn’t doing so well,” he says. “The crowd is a little light this year. This class is kind of weak. From 1997 to 2001 this was the place to be. The new class, the freshmen, they didn’t come with the spirit. They come to the game, but they don’t cheer.”

Moore indicates she doesn’t mind watching from outside the stadium given the team’s record for the season.

“They are oh and six,” she says. “I do not see paying thirty-five dollars for one game.”

At halftime the Aggies are scoreless, and by the end of the game the Bison will have prevailed 26-0.

The Aggie marching band takes the field and breaks into a version of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland.”

“If you haven’t heard of Earth, Wind & Fire then you are truly, truly from the new school,” the announcer intones. “Old-school Aggies, sit back and relax as the band takes you back with a medley of songs that will send chills up your spine’…. Alumni, we’re glad you’re back because it feels so good’…. Oh yeah, it looks like another love TKO.”

Later in the night parties proliferate all over the city as homecoming erupts in a final paroxysm of joy. The biggest is most certainly the hip-hop package show at the Coliseum headlined by Busta Rhymes where Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav reportedly makes a guest appearance. But the prestige party is at the Empire Room. Throughout the night crowds line the length of the Elm Street Center. VIP tickets cost $100. General admission starts at $60, and edges up into the eighties as midnight approaches.

Vehicular traffic creeps up the street, including Escalades, Beemers and a phalanx of Suzuki motorcycles as the revelers spill off the sidewalk. A jovial white police officer sporting a bald head hints to a group of young men wearing hoodies with ornately embroidered dragons and skulls that they might not pass dress code at the club. Three disappointed content providers from a central Virginia party website stand outside the velvet rope waiting in vain for promised free passes. The police frisk a white man in front of the nearby Churchill’s after harsh words have been exchanged between him and the homecoming revelers. The officers retrieve a handgun and secure it in a plastic bag.

Those with persistence may, with a little luck, find admittance to the esteemed Empire Room.

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