The founding father of East Carolina Teachers Training School, former Governor Thomas Jordan Jarvis (1836-1915), fully grasped the ultimately incomprehensible significance of the institution’s start when he observed, “This school comes nearer to being the people’s school than any other in the state ... [It provides] the greatest service to the greatest number of people … We can never begin to calculate the value it will be to North Carolina.” Read more ...
Having retired from an unparalleled career in political office, Governor Jarvis spent his final decades in his adopted home, Greenville, playing a leading role in transforming the small but thriving tobacco town on the Tar River into a center of educational distinction. Working with state senator James L. Fleming, a Greenville resident, Governor Jarvis contributed his priceless political connections throughout the state to have legislation enacted providing for the school, and then subsequently for it to be located in Greenville. Governor Jarvis also played the leading role in selecting the architectural style of the campus, Spanish colonial, reflecting his service to the nation as minister to Brazil. Jarvis also presided over the selection of the first president of the training school, Robert Herring Wright (1870-1934), and the original faculty. When the school opened in the fall of 1909 to a class of 123 students (104 women, 19 men), there was no doubt that the eastern part of the state had entered a new and profoundly promising age.
Unlike other schools in the area that were founded and then folded, East Carolina succeeded with distinction. Led for over two decades by President Robert Wright, a native North Carolinian devoted to excellence and progressive approaches to education, the training school rapidly filled a variety of needs with year round instruction of both aspiring and in-service teachers. The result was a degree of cultural and educational enlightenment in eastern North Carolina that continues even as the school advances into its second century.
Belief in the progressive power of education vis-à-vis the problems challenging humanity was an integral ethic at the institution. Confident elation over the new experiment was evident in virtually all that the school and its students did, from hosting a lecture by Helen Keller, to staging dramatic performances of plays like The Mikado, to the founding of literary societies, gardening, chapel talks, hiking, social activities, and myriad other forms of community engagement complementing classroom learning.
Robert Herring Wright (1870-1934) served as president of East Carolina from the school’s opening in 1909 until his passing in 1934. Born in Coharie, Sampson County, in the southeastern part of the state, Wright studied at Oak Ridge Institute and then taught at a rural school before continuing his studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and later Johns Hopkins University.
Following World War I, educators nationwide pushed for improvements in the schools and more rigorous standards in teacher certification. In North Carolina, this push impacted East Carolina, by then one of its leading teacher training institutions. Read more ...
On August 25, 1920, the General Assembly passed legislation empowering East Carolina as a four-year teachers college. Its primary educational mission was to produce teachers with bachelor’s degrees and class-A teaching certificates. Two-year certification remained an option, but was phased out by 1937. ECTC was more popular than the training school: enrollment surpassed 1,000 by the mid-1930s.
The 1920s were euphoric years. Not only was East Carolina a teachers college, the overwhelming majority of the student body, females, could vote following ratification of the women’s suffrage amendment in 1920. Along with empowerment politically and educationally, automobiles, motion pictures, and radio added to the cultural scene, making the school’s second decade profoundly different from its first.
1921 was a landmark year for state finances. That year, the legislature approved a state income tax. Increased revenues were devoted to roads and education. For East Carolina, explosive campus growth resulted, led by the founding president, Robert Wright. Campus size doubled with a succession of new buildings, including three residence halls [later named Fleming, Ragsdale, and Cotten] (1922, 1923, 1925); a library [Whichard] (1923); a social and religious building [Wright] (1925); and a new classroom building [Graham] (1929).
This dynamic era ended in 1934 with the sudden death of President Wright. Students, faculty, staff, and the community all mourned his passing. Eulogies from educational leaders poured in, remembering Wright’s contributions to the school and the larger educational community.
Wright’s successor, Dr. Leon Meadows struggled as he led the school through the depression and then World War II. Along the way, male enrollment picked up. Men’s athletic programs began, and the Pirate identity crystalized. One classroom building [later, Flanagan] (1939), was built, extending the campus southeastward. While East Carolina was becoming more coeducational, Jim Crow segregation remained unquestioned by the state’s educational leaders.
Meadow’s presidency ended in scandal following revelations that he misused student funds. Indictment, lengthy criminal proceedings, a mistrial, a retrial, and finally conviction and a prison sentence followed. The scandal was masked by coincidence with the end of World War II, but nevertheless was a blow to the institution.
After the war, the GI Bill, providing higher education for veterans, brought major changes to East Carolina. Hundreds of men enrolled in 1946. The following year, gender balance was achieved. The school had become fully coeducational, a state leader in gender equality.
In 1947, Dr. John Messick became president of the teachers college. Messick oversaw construction of an athletic complex on the east end of campus, featuring a football stadium known as College Stadium, a baseball field, and tennis courts. In 1952, a gymnasium was completed, soon named after the late football coach, John Christenbury. He also coordinated land acquisition on what would be called College Hill.
In 1951, the state legislature voted to upgrade East Carolina to a four-year college. With an enrollment of over 2000 students, East Carolina had already become the state’s largest public college. In some circles, it was already referred to as the “Eastern University.” Read more ...
The University of North Carolina was, in fact, the only public university in the state. As the “Consolidated University,” it included State College of Agriculture and Engineering (now N.C. State University) and the College for Women in Greensboro (now UNC-Greensboro). Yet East Carolina was on the rise. Its curriculum was the most diversified outside the Consolidated University. Although its faculty was relatively small, its academic caliber was exceptional, with 65 per cent holding a doctorate.
During the 1950s, the college did not move beyond segregation. When legislation was proposed upgrading the teachers college to East Carolina College, supporters cited the confusion prevalent due to the teachers college’s initials, E.C.T.C., being the same as those of Elizabeth City Teachers College, an African American institution. Early on, Governor Kerr Scott mentioned the possible inclusion of East Carolina in the Consolidated University, but also suggested that African American campuses be organized into a consolidated system of their own. The school’s charter was regularly cited as grounds for declining admittance to African American students. This changed during the administration of Messick’s successor, Dr. Leo W. Jenkins. Working with Dr. Andrew Best, a local African American physician, Jenkins orchestrated desegregation of the campus in the early 1960s, avoiding the court orders and conflict that often accompanied the transition elsewhere.
In the 1960s, Jenkins accelerated enrollment growth and oversaw other major transformations of campus culture, academic life, and identity. The student body, 4,000 strong in 1960, had nearly doubled by 1966. This momentum continued throughout the 1960s, making East Carolina the third largest behind UNC and N.C. State. Physical expansion continued, up College Hill with several new dorms, plus a new athletic campus including Ficklen Stadium, Minges Coliseum, a track field, baseball field, and football practice facilities.
Jenkins brought cultural renaissance to the East by recruiting leaders in art, literature, drama, and music. Academic departments multiplied and new schools were founded. The east end of campus, formerly occupied by College Stadium, was redeveloped with academic buildings housing faculty in art, business, the social sciences, music, and education. Jenkins also cultivated awareness of eastern North Carolina as a region, the East, centered in its “service facility,” East Carolina College.
By the mid-1960s, Jenkins launched a campaign to make East Carolina an independent, regional university. This push ran contrary to the “one-university” strategy accepted by most leaders in state education. Jenkins launched this bold drive with the political support of alumnus, trustee, and state senator, Robert Morgan, and virtually all powerbrokers in the East.
The bid generated statewide controversy. Most commentators understood that if successful, it would entail a major reconfiguration of public higher education. After narrow defeat in March 1967, the school’s sixtieth anniversary, backers warned of political consequences, suggesting the East might go Republican due to its betrayal by other state Democrats.
That summer, Senator John Henley of Fayetteville proposed a compromise: a system of regional universities, with East Carolina first among them. Also included were Western Carolina, Appalachian, and A&T in Greensboro. This bill, opposed by Gov. Dan Moore but supported by Lt. Gov. Robert Scott, passed. With it, not only had East Carolina achieved university status, it initiated a revolution in public university life, catapulting the state’s former teachers colleges to the highest level.
After achieving university status in 1967, East Carolina defined itself most prominently in terms of medicine and the health sciences. Seeing the need for a physician training school in the East, President Leo Jenkins led the campaign to establish one at East Carolina. Despite opposition from UNC, home of the only state-supported medical school, ECU ultimately secured a medical school, one meant to improve family care to underserved areas in the East. Read more ...
With a crucial political ally in Senator Robert Morgan, an ECU alumnus and board of trustee chair, Jenkins secured in 1965 funds for planning. In 1971, the legislature funded a one-year program at ECU. In 1974, the program was expanded to two years. In 1975, the Board of Governors, seeing strong political momentum in favor of the school, approved a four-year curriculum in medicine at ECU. State funding for necessary faculty, staff, and facilities followed.
The first class was admitted in the fall of 1977, a decade after East Carolina became a university and seventy years after the founding of the teachers training school. The following year, Jenkins retired, having seen East Carolina progress from a teachers college, to a college, to a university, and finally, a university with a new medical school. Upon his passing in 1989, the state legislature unanimously approved a joint resolution honoring his contributions to the state.
During the Messick and Jenkins years, East Carolina experienced three decades of exceptional growth. The post-Jenkins years, led by Chancellors Brewer and Howell, were ones of cultivation and consolidation of the earlier advances. Under Richard Eakin’s guidance, East Carolina embarked on another decade of progress, with a series of building initiatives including renovations to Joyner Library, a new student recreation center, a new classroom building (later Bate Building), expansions in the athletic complex, and growth in the medical campus.
Eakin helped secure funding, through a state bond supporting higher education, for construction of the new Science and Technology Building, the largest on the main campus. He also oversaw campus-wide installation of fiber optic cable essential to the revolution in information technology. By 2001, the year Eakin retired, ECU was among the state’s most digitally integrated campuses. Eakin’s administration also saw ECU recognized nationally as a Doctoral II research institution.
Between 2007 and 2009, East Carolina celebrated its centennial, marking a century of progressive educational service to the region. In 2006, the Board of Governors for the State University System approved a dental school for ECU, resulting in the founding of the second state supported program in dental medicine. Led by Chancellor Steve Ballard, ECU made its case by noting the severe shortage of dentists in the East. Major additions to the Health Science’s campus, including the new Health Sciences Building and the School of Dental Medicine, elevated East Carolina’s standing as the medical center of the East.
During Ballard’s years, the athletic campus was upgraded with a new baseball field, softball field, and expansions of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and Minges Coliseum. On the main campus, the Honors program became the Honors College, housed in a historic building, the Mamie Jenkins Building, and led by former chancellor, Richard Eakin, its founding dean. When the new chancellor, Cecil Staton, arrived in 2016, East Carolina was already well positioned to realize his vision for it as the next great national university.