'Sister Presidents:' Raleigh's 2 HBCU presidents on ties that bind the schools and their friendship

Joel Brown Image
Thursday, February 16, 2023
Raleigh's 2 HBCU presidents reflect on ties that bind their schools
The bond between Shaw University and Saint Augustine's University helped shape the fabric of Raleigh.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Most cities in America don't have a single historically Black college, but here in Raleigh, there are two. And the bond between Shaw University and Saint Augustine's University helped shape the fabric of the city. The two university presidents spoke to ABC11 about the ties that bind the schools' past and future.

First things first, when it comes to who has the better marching band, St. Aug or Shaw? Or which school will win on the football field? These two Raleigh HBCU president's loyalties are set in stone

"I take my gloves off when she comes over there to play basketball," Shaw President Paulette Dillard said jokingly.

Saint Augustine's President Christine Johnson McPhail added, "It keeps us both energetic and gets our students all hyped up."

Dillard and McPhail insist the competition ends there. They describe themselves as 'sister presidents,' and their school's relationship as a partnership. They dismissed any talk of a rivalry.

"If you hear people say that I want to succeed and Christine fail -- that's not who we are," said Dillard.

McPhail said: "It's not part of the picture that we see. We see a combined identity as HBCUs here."

At one point, there were 400 historically Black colleges in America -- just 100 remain. Raleigh has two. Shaw and SAU were both founded to educate Black people who were newly freed from slavery. They went on to become what alumni and neighbors, along the two-mile stretch that separates the schools say, are the protectors and face of its Black community.

"It's taken two very strong institutions to be able to do that in the capital of North Carolina," said Dillard. "We are working and constantly advocating for ourselves to be included in this economic booming Raleigh, as well as our neighbors all around us."

McPhail added, "We hope that we can continue to elevate the conversation so that the local legislators and the state legislators and all can see the contribution of both of the institutions. Not only to the economy but to the culture of this area."

Both HBCUs are looking for ways to boost revenue and renovate aging facilities on campus. They're pitching plans to reimagine the universities with private partnerships.

The proposed "Shaw U District" aims to rezone many university properties and then lease them to private developers. At Saint Augustine's, McPhail is finalizing plans to lease 12 acres of campus for a 320-unit multi-family project. The plans have fueled some criticism that the schools may be selling off their legacies.

"The thing that probably frustrates Christine and I the most is sometimes they give the impression that they don't think we're smart enough to run these institutions effectively; business-wise to make the best decisions," Dillard said. "We're saying, we've been through the hard stuff. We've been tested."

And as Raleigh charts its future, these two "sister presidents" say they're committed to ensuring their institutions are part of the conversation.

"Our voices must be heard. We are Raleigh," McPhail said. "And we're definitely both capable of speaking very loudly about being part of the community in a very real way."

Currently, there are 25 women serving as presidents at the nation's 100 HBCUs. That's slightly lower than the 30% of college presidents, overall, who are women. HBCU advocates say the numbers could and should be higher. But here in Raleigh, McPhail and Dillard are pledging to make sure their voices are heard.