Saint Augustine’s University, staying the course at 150

by Henry Gargan

photographs by Christopher T. Martin

At Saint Agnes Hospital on Oakwood Avenue in Raleigh on Nov. 6, 1958, a boy named Everett Ward was born. Nearly 60 years later, he has a rare opportunity: to keep the very place that brought him into the world from leaving it for good, and to breathe new life into the university that surrounds it.

Saint Augustine’s University, where Ward was educated and where he now serves as president, has weathered the intervening years better than the hospital, which has been closed for more than half a century. But the school has suffered. Never particularly wealthy to begin with, the university’s fortunes began to wane in the new millennium as enrollment dipped and tuition dollars dwindled. Led by Ward, the University has cut costs and made a recent, enthusiastic push toward solvency, but in December of last year, the school was put on probation by its accrediting body for financial reasons. Still, Ward and the school he loves remain steadfast in their fervent belief: Saint Augustine’s will survive. 

“I see a great university that is on the cutting edge, or just on the edge of realizing its potential,” Ward says. “I believe, without a doubt, that Saint Augustine’s’ greatest years are ahead of it.”

That tenacious spirit is shared by other Saint Augustine’s leaders. “We’re a school that, like most small colleges, we’ve had financial troubles,” says Hilton Smith, a 1968 alumnus, member of the school’s board of trustees, and retired vice president of Turner Construction Company. “But we remain in good standing with each other. We are determined to live through this and bring Saint Augustine’s into financial stability.” 

As the university begins its 150th year and continues its climb away from near-insolvency, Ward’s leadership serves as a symbol that its mission and history are of more than academic value. They may prove to be the school’s saving grace.

Student trustee Kendrick Cunningham, a junior, shares a laugh with President Ward. “When I first got here I didn’t really understand why I chose an HBCU, but as I’ve matured here, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. I’ve gained a better understanding of my culture and been able to understand who I am as a person.”

Legacy, history

Ward has never strayed far. His parents raised him around the corner in a house built by his great-aunt and great-uncle. His daycare was a block from campus; his elementary school, two blocks. The summer after he graduated from Broughton in 1977, Ward and his mother packed up a trunk just as if he were going far away for college. Then they picked up the trunk and took it down the street, where they emptied it into his freshman dormitory. Three years earlier, his mother had performed the same ritual with his older sister.

When Ward was first offered the presidency on an interim basis, in 2014, he saw an opportunity to honor the memories of his wife, father, and mother – all but his mother Saint Augustine’s graduates, and all recently passed – and to find comfort in the Saint Augustine’s family that all of them had helped create.

“I’m here because I was reared in a home where my parents instilled in my sister and I … that to whom much is given, much is required.”

Indeed, it’s a place Ward seems to be born to lead. When he looks at Saint Augustine’s future, he sees rebirth. When he looks upon the shell of the building where he was born, he sees it rising again, coming back to life as a public health center – a place where students will be educated in the medical professions, and where residents of Southeast Raleigh will be cared for.

His vision is bold. It is hard for a layperson to look at Saint Agnes as it stands today and imagine it free of climbing vegetation, let alone transforming into a state-of-the-art medical center. But Ward is a man of faith, and those who have watched him at work trust his roots, his optimism, and his vision.

From a rock quarry, a university

Ward likes few things about his job better than walking around campus.

“When I get tired of the administrative reports, I just get up and walk,” he says. “It reminds me of when I was a student here.”

He starts his constitutional on a recent morning with a stop at the most striking building on campus – one that also demonstrates how far the school has always been from the proverbial ivory tower: the chapel. As Ward proudly notes, this chapel was built in 1895 by Saint Augustine’s students with stone they quarried themselves.

Three decades earlier, the university was founded by a group of 11 Episcopal clergymen who, after the Civil War, saw the need to provide education and infrastructure to the approximately 4 million recently freed slaves who had never had the benefit of formal schooling.

They incorporated Saint Augustine’s Normal School in 1867 with the mission of training black teachers. Saint Agnes Hospital opened on the school’s grounds in 1896, and served as the only black teaching hospital between Washington D.C. and Atlanta.

In 1919, the school was reinvented as a junior college, and in 1927, it again expanded its offerings, becoming a four-year institution known simply as Saint Augustine’s College. Since 2012, Saint Augustine’s has been accredited as a full-fledged university. It remains one of only two historically black schools still affiliated with the Episcopal Church. The other is Vorhees College in South Carolina.

Saint Augustine’s has always been small – never larger than 2,000 students. In recent years, that number has dipped perilously low. The school relies primarily on tuition dollars to keep the lights on, and like many small, historically black schools, it doesn’t have the luxury of a large endowment to cushion dips in annual revenue.

A couple of years ago, those problems were accompanied – and temporarily worsened – by investigations from both accreditors and the federal government, the latter of which dealt with allegations that the school had mishandled federal grants. Between the fall of 2013 and the spring of 2014, about 200 students left campus and did not return, according to The News and Observer.

In April 2014, the board of trustees removed Ward’s predecessor, Dianne Boardley Suber, after 14 years at the university’s helm. Suber’s ouster followed the firing of Angela Haynes, the school’s vice president for business and finance.

At the time, Ward was working for the North Carolina Department of Transportation as its head of intergovernmental affairs. His time away from Saint Augustine’s had also involved various appointments in Democratic Party leadership, including serving in 1989 as the North Carolina party’s first African-American executive director, and as chairman of two of the Democratic National Committee’s permanent committees.

“I received a call from the chairman of the board of trustees, and he was very open about where the institution was,” Ward says. “He told me there would be a change in leadership, and the question was asked: If given the opportunity, would you come back and help?”

Ward wasn’t sure. He talked the offer over with Dr. Prezell Robinson, who led Saint Augustine’s during the final quarter of the 20th century. Robinson told Ward that Saint Augustine’s needed him. With that push from the past – and a pull from the future – Ward took the job.

Today, there are 950 students, and Ward says he’d like to see that number nearly double to about 1,800. That’s a sweet spot, he says, where the goals of financial stability and campus intimacy can both be met.

Working with less

Ward continues his walk, arriving at the school’s main athletic complex, where members of the baseball team are warming up on the football field.

The recent difficulty of simply keeping the lights on has meant the school hasn’t been able to pay for any major improvements. That’s not unique to Saint Augustine’s. Historically black institutions around the country have typically lacked access to the kind of wealthy donors, endowments, or other inherited assets that some predominantly white institutions enjoy.

“When you talk to someone like Coach (George) Williams who has built an Olympic reputation internationally around the track program – look what he’s working with!” Ward says, gesturing toward a meager grandstand on the west side of the field. “You see what I’m saying?”

Folks with no other reason to know about Saint Augustine’s know of George Williams and his success. He has been the university’s track coach for the past 40 years. His specialty has been producing world-class sprinters, particularly in the 400-meter dash. He’s coached Olympians, including many from Saint Augustine’s, at the Olympics every four years since 1996, including in 2004, when he served as head coach of the United States Men’s Olympic track and field team.

But Williams’ home track, which rings the SAU football field, doesn’t have a press box – a staple of most high school athletic complexes, many of which also feature larger grandstands than Saint Augustine’s’.

The track at Saint Augustine’s lacks facilities common to most high schools but the indoor and outdoor teams have still managed to win 38 Divsion II national championships under the direction of head coach George Williams

“I’ve coached two, three Olympic teams, and I can’t even get a press box,” Williams says. “I need $1.5 million to build a press box and bathrooms at the stadium. But no company, nobody would offer me any help.

“But I’m never an underdog,” he adds. “I’m underpaid, underfunded, underappreciated, you might say, but not an underdog. We don’t have the weight room, the infrastructure, the nutrition that everybody gets, all that stuff – we don’t have that. But we do have love for each other and a coach that understands the sport.”

As he’s talking, his phone rings. Williams digs the phone out of his right hip pocket and stares at the screen for a moment. He picks it up and puts the call on speaker.

It’s the son of a major would-be donor who years ago, Williams says, had personally agreed to help pay for the press box at Saint Augustine’s.

“Things have changed, George,” the man’s son says. “That was a long time ago. I’m sorry, but we won’t be able to make that contribution.”

Williams keeps his tone light.

“You can look me up,” he replies. “You can Google George Williams up and understand that I’m telling the truth – I’ve done a lot for the country.”

The chapel was built in 1895 by Saint Augustine’s students with stone they quarried themselves.

Smedes York, mayor of Raleigh from 1979 to 1983 and chairman of York Properties, has long family ties to the school. His great, great grandfather, the Rev. Aldert Smedes, was among the 11 Episcopal clergymen credited with its founding

The man’s response is polite but firm. It is clear that at least for now, and at least from this source, there will be no press box for the former U.S. Olympic coach, the man who has won 38 Division II national championships for Saint Augustine’s between his indoor and outdoor track and field teams.

Williams cordially thanks the caller for considering the matter, puts down the phone, and shakes his head.

“Now, that’s what I’m talking about,” he says. “See, (the would-be donor) promised me that he would give me $800,000 to build a press box in his name. He wrote it down and everything. But his son is saying he’s (too old) now, and he doesn’t understand. He’s got all the money in the world, but he’s not going to give me a penny.”

Williams retreats from the boardroom where he’s being interviewed to a small kitchen alcove to compose himself for a moment. When he emerges, his eyes are bloodshot.

“I mean, that’s a billionaire,” Williams whispers, still shaking his head. “Gosh.”

But halfway out the door, he turns and delivers one more dose of the faithful optimism that has carried his student-athletes so far with so little.

“This place is sacred,” he says. “It’ll be all right, man, OK?”

A sacred place

The university’s 105 acres are tucked away on the north side of Oakwood Avenue in Southeast Raleigh, one of the city’s historically black neighborhoods. Saint Augustine’s is one of two Raleigh HBCUs, as historically black colleges and universities are collectively called – Shaw University, a Baptist institution, is the other.

Saint Augustine’s began as a place of opportunity for those denied it elsewhere, says J. Peder Zane, a longtime The News and Observer columnist who taught at Saint Augustine’s between 2011 and 2016. He said the school’s role has since changed in form, though not in spirit.

Saint Augustine’s “has always given a chance to marginalized groups,” Zane says. “There is a proud history of serving the best and the brightest in the African-American community. The school has evolved so it’s still serving a marginalized population, but it’s a subset of students who need the structural and cultural opportunities Saint Augustine’s can provide.”

The obstacles that persist for black students seeking a college degree – and there are many – no longer include exclusion from top institutions like Duke or UNC-Chapel Hill. Black college students have choices now, and it’s up to places like Saint Augustine’s to convince them that historically black spaces still hold value.

Hope for a color-blind society, among other things, has led some to view historically black institutions as anachronisms – costly reminders of institutional segregation that no longer exists. In North Carolina, state-funded HBCUs that also face declining enrollment have been threatened with budget cuts by the state legislature.

HBCUs’ defenders argue the schools remain vital: “Historically black colleges continue to be extremely relevant, especially because we’re still in a nation where we have roughly 10 percent or less of our population that’s college-educated,” Ward says. “If we are indeed going to be a competitor globally in the intellectual community, we can’t afford to close not one institution.”

Ward likes to get out and walk around the campus. “It reminds me of when I was a student here,” he says. Here, he shares a laugh with students.

He also points to Saint Augustine’s’ high percentage of first-generation students – the first members of their family to pursue a four-year degree – as evidence of a continuing need to provide opportunity to those for whom the inertial hold of poverty and structural racism remains strongest.

Zane says HBCUs also give black students an opportunity to learn in a setting where their race isn’t the first thing people notice about them. Plenty of black, first-generation students attend predominantly white colleges, too, but they often struggle with racial and economic isolation in addition to the learning curve any first-year college student faces.

Being black and bearing the weight of a family’s expectations are not foreign or unusual experiences at Saint Augustine’s. The school’s faculty, staff, and student body share an understanding of the problems that often prevent black, first-generation students from completing a degree.

“There have been times where me, and I know some of my friends, have thought, ‘It’s over,’” junior and Charlotte native Kendrick Cunningham says of his time at Saint Augustine’s. “There’s pressure from family, problems back at home, social problems on campus, and overcoming self-doubt. It’s the close relationships with peers, administrators, staff members, that keep you pushing forward. Once you graduate from here, you feel like you can conquer anything you put your mind to.”

As president, Ward says he feels a heavy sense of obligation not only to his students, but also to their families, and to the generations to come whose futures will be shaped by the opportunities their parents find here.

“I was a direct recipient of that same kind of benefit, and that’s what makes me want to give it back to them,” Ward says. “When the president of the university writes a letter of recommendation to the governor, and you get a job with the Democratic Party – I know what that meant.”

‘You have to give back’

Ward is ambitious: In addition to expanding the school’s public health program and eventually restoring the site of Saint Agnes Hospital, he wants to grow the school’s business and communications programs.

But Ward’s ambitions have to contend with financial reality. To remain within its budget, the school has postponed capital improvements, instituted pay cuts, and sold Meadowbrook Country Club, a university-owned golf course in Garner that opened in 1958 as Raleigh’s first private country club for African-Americans.

“Sometimes you have to make tough decisions,” says Hilton Smith, trustee and alumnus. “And with the golf course, that was a decision that we pretty much had to make. We’re living with that.”

To get beyond such financial insecurity, Ward’s goal is plain: “I’d say raising dollars outside of tuition is the biggest challenge for us now.” He needs more alumni to follow Smith’s example: “I pay to Saint Augustine’s just as I pay my bills,” Smith says, “because if it weren’t for Saint Augustine’s, I wouldn’t be able to pay a bill.”

Ward knows he needs more Hilton Smiths, but he also needs to be creative with what he has, where he can. Walking around the quad, he runs into a few senior administrators, and on the fly, they begin discussing floor plans for an old dormitory that Ward wants to repurpose and lease as temporary space to a local, black-owned drugstore. Its presence would give students somewhere to shop a stone’s throw from the quad – and help the school monetize an aging asset that currently sits vacant. He also plans to work with communities in Southeast Raleigh to improve access to fresh groceries, he says.

Then he waves down a group of young men walking across the quad.

“Hello, how are my students?” Ward booms. “Y’all doing all right? Good. Don’t forget, turkey dinner tonight, starting at 4. And I’m serving!”

Smart policy and shrewd asset management will be critical to Saint Augustine’s’ future, but the word most often associated with the school’s success is “family.” It is often a family connection that brings students to the school, and family connections have kept many of the school’s most important benefactors involved during the hard times.

Ward will spend much of the anniversary year traveling around the country spreading the word about Saint Augustine’s. He says he’ll use the school’s 150 years of stories like Smith’s to convince potential students, donors, and investors alike that Saint Augustine’s is an institution on the rise.

“We’ve always had to work with less, as far as infrastructure, compared to other institutions,” says Ward. “But what we’ve learned from our ancestors reminds me that if they could make it in 1914, in the 1960s, there’s no reason we can’t make it now. It’s about learning to do the very best that you can with limited resources.”

Ward’s conviction and charm will be effective tools of persuasion, but his very presence at the helm of Saint Augustine’s at this difficult point in its history is perhaps the greatest endorsement of the school and the loyal character it can develop in those who give it a chance. Both Ward and Coach Williams are two remarkably talented alumni who could, if they chose, live comfortably in the employ of far wealthier and more stable institutions.

“But you have to give back,” Williams says. He has rejected multiple job offers from major Division I track programs to stay at Saint Augustine’s. “It’s not always about finance. It was a hard time persuading my family that this is what I should do, but I’m loyal to whatever I get into. I’m loyal to the people trying to achieve their dreams.”

If Ward’s dreams result in a new golden age for Saint Augustine’s, it will be a satisfying return on an investment that began in the summer of 1977 when Ward first arrived on campus.

“That’s why I say to faculty and staff that we can’t mistreat not one student,” Ward says. “The very student you turn your back on or pour negative vibes into may be that congressman or that doctor or that attorney you have turned away.”

Or, in Ward’s case, that university president.