Hightower, the first black full-time student at Elon, received the honorary degree during the university's Spring Convocation on April 4.
Elon University on Thursday presented an honorary doctorate of humane letters to Glenda Phillips Hightower, Elon's first black full-time student and a steadfast advocate for the power of a university education.
Hightower was presented with the honorary degree at Elon's Spring Convocation, an annual celebration of academic excellence and philanthropy that reflects the university's commitment to an arts and sciences education.
"'Thank you' is woefully inadequate to express my gratitude, my humility, my honor and my great satisfaction at being included in a celebration of education and grandness," Hightower told the crowd. "I thank you so much for creating for me a healing. I didn't realize at the time that what I was doing was leadership, but I certainly am glad it was interpreted as leadership."
Presenting the honorary degree to Hightower was L'Tanya Richmond '87, the former director of Elon's Multicultural Center who researched the history of Elon's African-American students, including Hightower, while pursuing a master's degree from Duke University. Richmond is now the dean of multicultural affairs at Smith College in Massachusetts.
"She left an indelible mark on me, and with courage and grace, Glenda Phillips Hightower left an indelible mark on Elon community by demonstrating the power each of us has to make our world a better and more just place," Richmond said. "We are a stronger and more inclusive community because of Glenda Phillips Hightower, who inspired us to be our best selves."
President Connie Ledoux Book noted that Hightower "exemplified our mission and reflected Elon's values in a way that we had not yet done" when she attended the school. "We're a place made stronger because of your resilience."
Hightower arrived at Elon in September 1963 at a time when school integration around the South was marred by violence and protests. Relentless in her pursuit of education, she has been a steadfast advocate for the power and promise of education. “Education is yours, and through education and expanded knowledge, you can ascertain freedom for everyone,” Hightower said in 2005. “The more you know, the freer you are.”
Elon’s annual Black Excellence Awards now carry her name, along with that of Eugene Perry, who became Elon’s first black graduate in 1969. Her portrait was created by renowned artist Michael Del Priore in 2016 and hangs on the second floor of Moseley Center, along with Perry’s.
Integral to the movement to honor Hightower with the degree was SGA Executive President Kenneth Brown Jr. '19. Brown had a discussion about Hightower with his mother following last year's Black Excellence Awards ceremony about the challenges she faced on campus, and then further researched her story to learn more. What he found out led him to bring a proposal to President Connie Ledoux Book and Provost Steven House. Brown said that presenting Hightower with the honorary doctorate is a step toward addressing the fact that "simply put, Elon failed her" during her time at the university.
Hightower grew up in Burlington, N.C., the oldest of nine children. Valedictorian of her class of 56 students at the all-black Jordan Sellars High School, Phillips understood the power of education and a college degree. Her valedictory address, titled “Education is the bulwark of freedom,” shows that from an early age she understood the value of an education. A college degree was in her sights. “I fully understood it was going to be challenging, but my primary objective was to get an education,” Hightower said in 2005.
As she headed toward high school graduation in spring 1963, higher education in North Carolina had already begun moving toward integration. Davidson College, Guilford College and Wake Forest University admitted their first black undergraduates the fall before, and Duke University would admit its first in fall 1963.
But the dangers that could follow integration were apparent. Elsewhere in the South, integration had been more political and uglier than it was in North Carolina. James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi in fall 1962 was preceded by riots by white students, and he walked into class that fall accompanied by U.S. marshals. Just weeks after Hightower graduated high school, Alabama Gov. George Wallace famously blocked the door to keep the first black students at the University of Alabama from entering and enrolling.
“It was decided by the very wise people at the time, since integration was going to happen at that time, why not do it peacefully, why not do it pragmatically, why not do it so that no one gets hurt and everyone benefits,” Hightower told Elon News Network in 2016. “I’m so happy they did and they chose me.”
Elon President J. Earl Danieley was the driving force behind Hightower’s arrival at Elon. Without seeking input from the Elon Board of Trustees about admitting black students, Danieley approved Hightower’s acceptance when Admissions Director Alfred Hassell brought it to his attention. “She had every qualification,” Danieley said in 2013.
Hightower had other concerns about enrolling at Elon that fall beyond those that might stem from the color of her skin. “I wasn’t afraid of coming to school or dreading that someone would call me the N-word,” she said in 2013, the 50 anniversary of her enrollment. “I was worried that I couldn’t learn fast enough.”
Hightower chose Elon based upon proximity and finances, as well as health concerns from an earlier bout with hepatitis. She received a full scholarship, but was not offered the opportunity to live in campus residence halls with other undergraduates. Living at home, she took the bus from downtown Burlington to travel the nearly five miles to campus.
She carried with her to campus an internal drive to succeed, but also the knowledge of what she represented to many in the black community. She found a campus where the only other black people filled custodial roles. “Out in the community, they would get the word to my parents that they were glad I was there, and they were proud of it,” Hightower said of these Elon employees. “The way I felt was I had a huge responsibility to do my very best to represent the black community. So my job was stepping forward to represent the black community. So it was more than just my education — it was my responsibility as well to give it my best.”
But she felt cut off from her classmates and many professors. She felt unwelcome in the dining hall and library, and only entered those facilities a handful of times during her nearly three semesters at Elon. After visiting several classmates in their residence hall, she was told by one to not come back. She would often find empty classrooms to study in when she was not in class.
She found a home in Elon’s marching band, then under the direction of Jack O. White. A clarinetist since high school, she performed at home games and followed the football team to games around the state. Those experiences also brought her face-to-face with the racism that prevailed North Carolina. During a late-night stop by the band at a restaurant as it returned from a game against East Carolina University (then East Carolina College), the restaurant owner placed a shotgun on the counter and shouted “get that N out of here.” It was an experience she never forgot.
Unfortunately, Hightower didn’t complete her education at Elon. In the fall of her sophomore year, she fell ill again with hepatitis. She also got married, which prompted a move to Washington, D.C. with her new husband.
Though she left Elon, her commitment to an education did not leave her. In Washington she took courses at Federal City College before moving to Howard University, an opportunity which also allowed her to take courses at Georgetown and George Washington universities while working. During nearly a decade of working in the capital, she held positions with the American Council on Education and the American Association for the Advancement of Higher Education. It was an environment she later called “inspiring” and “enlightening.”
Her marriage ended in 1967, and she later left Washington for Iowa City, Iowa, where she went back to school full time, earning a nursing and general science degree from the University of Iowa in 1974. Those degrees paved the way for her to become a critical care nurse, serving in the intensive care units of Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals first in Iowa and then in Durham, N.C., where she spent the bulk of her career before retiring from nursing in 1999.
Through the door that Hightower opened at Elon in 1963 followed first Eugene Perry, a fellow Jordan Sellars graduate who became the university’s first black graduate in 1969, and then thousands of other black Elon students. Asked in 2005 what advice she would give to other black students, Hightower offered this insight — “Whatever you do, stay strong. It’s worth it. Education is always worth it.”