Vivian Sansom came from a “firsts” family.
Her grandfathers, Dr. Aaron Moore and Jon Merrick, founded North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. and were among the founders of Mechanics and Farmers Bank, two landmark, black-owned Durham companies. Moore was known as Durham’s first black physician and founded Lincoln Hospital, once the city’s black hospital and now a community health center. And Sansom’s mother, Lyda Merrick, co-founded the first magazine servicing blind African-Americans.
When her time came, Sansom furthered her family’s legacy and achieved many firsts herself. Her accomplishments challenged not only barriers of race, but also of gender.
At a time when women of any color were rarely exposed to athletics, let alone encouraged to pursue them, Sansom excelled at the traditionally male sports golf and tennis. She also pursued a career in which she could promote athleticism in women at the collegiate level.
Her family says she was likely the first female faculty member at North Carolina Central University, where she taught physical education for six years (it was then called the North Carolina College for Negroes). Teaching at Shaw University for more than three decades, she embodied and encouraged physical wellness, athletic prowess, and kindness of heart. These qualities resonated with students long after their required freshman health course.
Sansom, 97, died on the Fourth of July.
Part of her legacy involved her staunch support of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. She attended every CIAA tournament for the historically African-American sports conference from 1945 through 2008. Dialysis finally forced her to stay at home.
Growing up in Durham, Sansom and her younger sister were part of one of the community’s pre-eminent black families, highly educated and influential. When Nat King Cole came through town, he sat at her mother’s piano during a visit.
“She could have put on airs but she was so humble,” said longtime friend Thelma T. Daley. “She was always elevating people.”
Sports piqued her interest early on, and she had the honor to team up for a doubles match at Durham’s former Algonquin Tennis Club with Althea Gibson, the first black player to integrate the game and win a Grand Slam title.
She pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in physical education, but still came across those skeptical of a women’s interest in athletics. After NCCU founder and president Dr. James Shepard hired Sansom, he asked why she preferred the classroom to the kitchen. She responded: “Why do you think I went to grad school if I didn’t want to teach?” She had to ask permission for every basketball she needed from the supply closet.
Still, she never abandoned her post as her family’s matriarch. After taking a few years off while her four children were young, she returned to work full time, first as assistant director of the YWCA in Winston-Salem, then at Shaw, which became her home away from home.
Former students say she not only inspired them, but she also virtually adopted them. She and her husband, James Joseph Sansom, became the “surrogate parents” to many a Shaw student, offering housing, meals, and unconditional love.
Former Shaw student Sharon Brown drove from New York to attend Sansom’s funeral. “She just personified care, care for your body and care for your mental and physical well-being,” Brown said. “I considered her my Southern mom.”
Sansom’s loving nature presented itself each year when the CIAA tournament rolled around. She’d set up camp in her living room, arranging hotel rooms, securing tickets and organizing meal schedules for her large extended family of friends.
“The CIAA for a lot of families, a lot of people, is like a family reunion. And she was like the general, she was like the chief, for what was going to take place in that week,” said Robert “Chad” Chadwick, who is in charge of the ball girl and boy program that involves disadvantaged youth in the tournament in the hopes of inspiring them to pursue an education.
In another first, Sansom became the CIAA’s first honorary ball girl in 2008. Chadwick believed Sansom, at 85, embodied the positive inspiration those children need.
Vivian McCotta Merrick Sansom
Born Sept. 11, 1917, in Durham.
FAMILY: Marries James Joseph Sansom, Jr. in 1942 and they have four children: Joseph Merrick Sansom, Beryl Vivian Sansom Gilmore, Sarah Genevieve Sansom Stewart, and James Edward Sansom. She is widowed in 1989, and they have six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
EDUCATION: Attends Durham public schools before attending Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia; receives undergraduate degree from Talladega College in then her masters degree in health and physical education from Boston College in 1941. receives honorary doctorate from Shaw University in 2008.
CAREER: Teaches physical education at NCCU for six years in the 1940s, later working as assistant director of the YWCA in Winston-Salem in 1952. Joins the faculty of Shaw University in 1959, where she teaches health and physical education until her retirement in 1996.
Dies July 4, in Raleigh.