When the Saint Augustine’s University Raleigh/Wake Retired Alumni Chapter honored those among them who have celebrated 90 or more birthdays, it also — perhaps unwittingly — unveiled the institution’s roots of optimism and perseverance.
It’s no secret the timing of the group’s Hats Off to Our Ninety-Plus Lifers recognition luncheon Tuesday comes amid transition at Saint Aug. As the school settles in to its upgrade to university status, it also is under new leadership after the board in April reversed a management shake-up and ousted long-time president Dianne Boardley Suber under clouds of financial mismanagement and declining enrollment.
The Hats Off luncheon was held at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, established during the post-Civil War era in 1868 by adults who worshipped at the chapel of what was then St. Augustine’s Normal and Collegiate Institute.
"Our honorees today are legends in their own works," said Johnsie Snipes, who graduated from St. Aug in 1968. "There is nothing that we could give our honorees that would measure up to what they have done for our chapter, for St. Augustine’s University and for the city of Raleigh."
For interim president Everett Ward, the duty of presenting the honorees with certificates and an engraved paper weight was an opportunity to salute his nursery school teacher, Rosia DeLaine Butler, a 1941 SAU graduate and longtime director of Raleigh Nursery School on Halifax Street in Midtown.
It also meant kudos to the Class of 1942’s Lemuel T. Delany, whose father, Bishop Henry Beard Delany, the first African-American bishop elected in North Carolina and the second in the nation, helped build the St. Augustine’s Chapel, visible from Ward’s office. Ward was warmed to honor Julia Smith, 99, a SAU Class of ’37 graduate who spent her life as a nurse at St. Agnes Hospital, his own birth place. St. Agnes was built on the campus in 1896, and became known as the only hospital from Atlanta to D.C. that served black patients.
Although he was unable to attend, Purdie Anders, Ward’s supervisor during the interim president’s time as a SAU work-study student, was also honored.
"We owe you so much for the legacy you have passed on to all of us," Ward told the honorees.
"If they can do all they have done, we certainly can do all that we can to make certain that St. Augustine’s University lives on for generations and generations to come," he said.
Among the other honorees at "Hats Off" were Blonnie Slade, Class of 1942; Mattie Jones, Class of ’44; Junious N. Sorrell, Class of ’52 and Millie D. Veasey, Class of ’53.
Smith, considered a legend of St. Agnes, remembers a school quite different than it is now, but one that has learned along the way what it takes to survive and succeed.
"We’ve had some hard times, but most schools do," said Smith. "If they’ll just work together, I hope, they will carry forward."
Sorrell, who spoke on behalf of his fellow honorees, said all anybody has to do is look around at the history of St. Aug, Shaw University and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities in our state. Though, he said, they were "set up to fail, they extraordinarily succeeded because of dedicated individuals."
"I’m fearful of the fact that those sources were alienated by something that went on; they stopped supporting the institution to the degree that they had been," he said. "I believe Dr. Ward is the man to stop this bleeding."
Opening the school’s arms to alumni is part of the salve.
"I did a little research," Sorrell said. "As far as I can tell, in the history of St. Augustine’s University, this is the first time we’ve been recognized – and we’re thankful for that."
Reminding us that, together, they represent 748 years of life and living – much of it during the periods of American History noted by Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Movement — Sorrell said the group "surely left footprints in the sands of time" that we must follow. Think of the troubled waters of their day, he said, noting his own 9-mile walks to school, and his classmates’ determination to push through roadblocks of discrimination, segregation, and educational and financial injustices.
"We have gone through many ups and downs, but God has blessed us. We can’t deny it," he said, turning to a song by gospel great James Cleveland. "And we are no ways tired. We aren’t giving up.”