Phyliss Craig-Taylor entered the third grade with a cigar box where she kept a sad and unusual collection – the debris thrown at her, one of just a handful of black students, by her white classmates.
After school, she and her mother would move the sticks, stones and occasional shards of glass into a larger bag, which would eventually be used in court to further racial integration efforts. It was an experience that propelled Craig-Taylor to become both a lawyer and an advocate for social justice.
The youngest of 12 children growing up on an Alabama farm, she would go on to attend the University of Alabama and Columbia University, while most of her older siblings earned their degrees at colleges founded to educate African-American students.
Now dean of the N.C. Central University law school, Craig-Taylor was recently tapped by President Barack Obama to serve on an advisory board for historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
Founded during the era of segregation, the nation’s 100 HBCUs, including 10 in North Carolina, still play an outsized role in educating minority students. About 15 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned by African-Americans came from HBCUs in 2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
I have seen the role that they [HBCUs] have played in advancing opportunities for African-Americans in this country because I lived it. It’s not somebody else’s story.
The advisory board was formed to help shape education policy that affects these schools, many of which have faced enrollment declines and financial problems in recent years. It’s a subject about which Craig-Taylor is passionate.
“I have seen the role that they have played in advancing opportunities for African-Americans in this country because I lived it,” she says. “It’s not somebody else’s story.”
Johnson Akinleye, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at N.C. Central, says Craig-Taylor has both the passion and experience to promote HBCUs effectively.
“She will be a strong voice, and intelligent voice, a voice that is well aware of the pertinent issues that surround HBCUs,” says Akinleye. “Who she is and where she comes from, her experience and background, make her a very knowledgeable person to explain these issues.”
Facing hostility head on
Craig-Taylor and her siblings grew up working the fields to raise cotton and vegetables, but they were urged to pursue a different kind of future. While her parents hadn’t been to college, all 10 of their surviving children earned degrees, mostly from HBCUs.
Active in the civil rights movement, her parents framed their childrens’ education as part of that struggle. That’s why they opted to send Craig-Taylor and two of her siblings to white schools, despite the hostility they faced.
The debris Craig-Taylor collected in the cigar box was used in one of several court cases that ended the choice policy in favor of more deliberate integration.
“My mother would tell me that one day this could be used as evidence in court to show that people should not be treated this way,” Craig-Taylor says. “We understood our experience was part of a larger journey.”
When a high school counselor told Craig-Taylor that she wasn’t college material, the 15-year-old left school and went to the University of West Alabama.
She managed to gain admission based on her perseverance and high test scores. Yet her parents insisted she attend the University of Alabama, which had long been at the center of struggles over integration.
“Integration had started to take hold, and my parents thought because that opportunity was there, we should take advantage of it,” she says.
So she transferred there after a year, and earned bachelor’s and law degrees, specializing in real estate and property law. Once practicing law, she rose to partner at a law firm known for its commitment to public service.
“They taught me that you can have enough cases, but still find a way to give back with those pro bono cases,” she says.
But she was a natural teacher, and soon found herself teaching at law schools, both traditional courses on property law and seminars on topics such as women in the law and the politics of difference. She taught at N.C. Central for several years in the early 2000s, and also at the University of Florida, the University of Tennessee, and as a visiting professor in Poland. Before returning to NCCU in 2012, she served as an associate dean at the Charlotte School of Law.
She earned a second legal degree at Columbia, and has written about land loss among African-Americans and legal discrimination against minority groups. And she has been active in several initiatives, including membership in the American Bar Association’s Coalition for Racial and Ethnic Justice.
Among her initiatives as law dean at NCCU has been to start a program on intellectual property law; it draws undergraduate students who take the science courses needed for this high-demand specialty and then track directly into the law school program, where they get hands-on experience handling patent applications.
Part of the goal is to get more students involved in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
“It’s our way of looking at another area where students of color are generally underrepresented,” says Craig-Taylor.
The presidential advisory board she was appointed to in May will meet several times a year and produce an annual report with statistics and recommendations to support HBCUs.
Craig-Taylor says HBCUs face many of the same problems as traditional colleges and universities, such as the rising cost of college and reduced state funding, but those issues are exaggerated at schools that have a larger proportion of poor and first-generation college students.
I know when I look in the eyes of some of these students, they have been told that they shouldn’t be in some place, or they couldn’t accomplish something. My job every day is to make sure that understand that yes, it is for them, too.
Once recent report by the advisory board focused on how higher credit limits for student loans have prevented many students from attending college, affecting HBCUs disproportionately.
But Craig-Taylor notes that this is also one of the benefits of HBCUs in the post-segregation era. While they now accept students of all races, HBCUs tend to be adept at working with the first-generation college students who sometimes struggle at traditional colleges and universities.
Helping to retain students who tend to fall through the cracks elsewhere is a key role for HBCUs.
“You think about the difference between the income that you’re able to make with a high school degree and a college degree, this speaks to the ability to build wealth in communities of color,” she says. “When you have institutions that are making that kind of impact, it’s pretty compelling to make sure they remain viable.”
At NCCU, for instance, counselors serve as mentors who help not just with choosing classes, but to discuss issues outside the classroom and to keep close tabs on students to make sure they don’t fall behind. They also focus on soft skills such as decision-making and self-reflection.
She recalls the counselor who told her she wasn’t college material, judging her more by her color and background than her abilities.
“I know when I look in the eyes of some of these students, they have been told that they shouldn’t be in some place, or they couldn’t accomplish something,” she says. “My job every day is to make sure that understand that yes, it is for them, too.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect name for the college Phylliss Craig-Taylor first attended after leaving high school.
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Born: July 1960, Yantley, Ala.
Career: Dean, N.C. Central University School of Law
Education: B.A. and J.D., University of Alabama; L.L.M, Columbia University
Family: Husband and three children
Notable: Craig-Taylor served as a law clerk under Alabama Supreme Court Judge Mark Kennedy, the son-in-law of segregationist governor George Wallace.