Elon pioneers recognized for 'heroic' role in integration
Glenda Phillips Hightower and Eugene Perry ‘69 were honored during a special College Coffee with formal portraits unveiled to commemorate their roles in making Elon history.
The two portraits - displayed side by side as they were unveiled - captured the energy and ambition and "sparkle" of youth.
In the first, a man with pursed lips delivers an intense stare, his career in teaching and drug counseling yet to begin. In the second, a woman shows hints of a smile, one that would eventually bring comfort to thousands of patients under her nursing care in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Eugene Perry ‘69 and Glenda Phillips Hightower grinned Tuesday morning when they saw those portraits for the first time at a special College Coffee to honor their contributions to Elon University history. Actually, they did more than grin. They gasped. Laughed. Embraced.
And as they hugged, hundreds of students, faculty, staff and family members applauded the legacy of two people who integrated Elon half a century ago when their presence wasn’t always appreciated.
“They did something extraordinary, something historic, and something that we perceive today as incredibly generous,” said Elon University President Leo M. Lambert. “They persevered. And in the process, Glenda and Eugene changed Elon College and paved the way for thousands of black students, faculty and staff to follow them.
“Thank you for never giving up. Thank you for leading this institution to a better place. Thank you for choosing the path of love and sacrifice. And thank you for loving Elon.”
Phillips attended then-Elon College starting in 1963, enrolling as the first and – at that time – only full-time black student. She was a pre-medicine major and joined the marching band as a clarinetist during her studies. Phillips withdrew from Elon in the middle of her sophomore year in part due to health issues. She earned a degree in 1974 from the University of Iowa.
Perry graduated in 1969, the first black student to complete an Elon degree program after studying social science. Like Phillips, Perry also performed in the marching band. His career arc including serving as a Navy chaplain, a teacher, and a drug counselor.
The two works by national award-winning artist Michael Del Priore will be on permanent display at the top of the main staircase in the Moseley Center where generations of students will be able to appreciate Phillips and Perry’s contributions to the university.
“I’m speechless. These are fantastic!” Phillips told her College Coffee audience. “I’m so glad you’re willing to share this with the world and I’m certainly personally very moved by your efforts to get this done.”
Life at Elon wasn’t always easy. Perry said his emotions sometimes feel as though they are in a time capsule and that it can be “a challenge to come back.” But over time his views have evolved. He said he “always accepts a challenge” and that he has no regrets.
In fact, Perry said, Elon set him on a journey that he would not have otherwise discovered. “Life has been an adventure,” he said. “The good thing is that Elon helped give me the tools, come what may, to get the job done.”
Elon’s annual Phillips-Perry Black Excellence Award banquet is named in honor of the two Elon pioneers.
Student Government Association President Avery Steadman and Black Student Union President Alexandre Bohannon opened the ceremony before turning the program over to Lambert, who noted that the idea for the day's celebration was sparked by a fall semester BSU meeting.
“We strive to be an institution of higher learning that is always getting better on every front, including being an ever more inclusive community,” Lambert said. “Portraits commemorate important people and events, and the beginning of integration of the Elon student body is a tremendously important part of our history and worthy of celebration.”