In 1909, a black pharmacist named James Edward Shepard chose to charter the National Religious Training School and Chautauqua for the Colored Race, which welcomed its first students on July 5, 1910.
Shepard was raised in the light of the promise of Reconstruction. He attended Raleigh’s Shaw University, a liberal arts and professional black college where he earned the Graduate in Pharmacy degree in 1894.
Owner and pharmacist of the first black drug store in Durham, Shepard was also field secretary for the International Sunday School Association and traveled the country taking the measure of the African-American clergy. The son of the pastor of the principal African-American church in Durham—White Rock Baptist Church, Shepard founded his institution with the mission to educate African-American ministers of all denominations to lift the quality of the leadership of his people.
The Durham Merchants Association, prominent African-American businessman John Merrick, physician Aaron Moore, and educator William G. Pearson raised $25,000 for Shepard’s institution. However, one philanthropist, Brodie Leonidas Duke, awarded 20 of the 25 acres donated for the campus. The tract was located just outside the city limits on the black side of Durham, called Hayti.
Just as Booker T. Washington had been inspired by his technical education at Hampton to found a technical college, Shepard’s liberal arts education at Shaw and later Howard University placed him on the W.E.B. DuBois side of the debate concerning the direction of higher education for African-Americans. However, he understood there was a need for both paths to a better life for his people. Hence, his institution would offer agricultural and home industrial courses like sewing and gardening as well as liberal arts offerings in foreign languages, philosophy, and mathematics.
The ministers in the religious training school attended at no charge while the high school, four-year liberal arts, and technical students paid only $8 per month for tuition, room and board. The philanthropy on which Shepard was clearly dependent waned with the advent of World War I. The school was sold at public auction for failure to pay taxes in September and repurchased in October of 1915 when a check for $25,000 arrived in the mail from Mrs. Russell Sage of New York City. Shepard took this opportunity to rename the institution the National Training School but its fortunes did not change dramatically; and in 1923, 25 acres, 8 buildings, equipment, and debts totaling $49,000 were turned over to the state government for use as a teacher training institution for African-Americans. Shepard was made principal of the new Durham State Normal School for Negroes.
In 1925, when Shepard learned the state had agreed to fund college-level liberal arts programming for African-Americans, he lobbied hard for the selection of his institution as the site of this new public offering. While Shepard was openly campaigning for public support of liberal arts education, two fires burned three buildings to the ground on January 28 and 29, 1925, including the administrative building, the men’s dormitory, and the dining hall. Despite this act of arson, Shepard’s institution was chosen and became North Carolina College for Negroes, the nation’s first state-supported liberal arts college for African-Americans.