In NC, we’re no strangers to being first — looking at you, first successful airplane flight — and Shaw University in Downtown holds several historical “firsts” as well.
Shaw, founded in 1865, was the first historically Black university in the South, the first college in the US to offer a 4-year medical program + the first historically Black college in the country to open its doors to women.
When women were admitted to the school, the university constructed the first building in the US for the higher education of Black women — Estey Hall. Now the oldest building on campus, the Italianate-style Estey Hall was built in 1874 by architect George S. H. Appleget as a dormitory for women.
The building, named for benefactor + organ maker Jacob Estey, was built using bricks that were handmade on campus grounds. It’s located at 721 S. Wilmington St., and visible when driving down South Blount Street.
The women first living in Estey Hall studied home economics, music, art, and religion. It remained a women’s dorm until 1968.
In the 1970s, the building was almost demolished. Resources were pooled and funding was raised in order to save Estey and keep it on campus, where it now serves as an administrative building housing affairs including the office of the president.
In August, Shaw received just under $500,000 from the National Park Service to preserve the building — like doing work on the roof + redoing the floors.
Ella Baker, a prominent civil rights activist, was a 1927 valedictorian + graduate of Shaw University. After graduation, she played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s by working as an activist with the NAACP.
After being inspired by the Greensboro Sit-Ins done by NC A&T students, Ella wanted to help more student activists participate in the movement. She returned to her alma mater, and created the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Estey Hall — it became a major network for student participation in activism in the US.
The committee adopted a theory of nonviolent direct action, and helped organize the 1961 Freedom Rides.
Ella’s history lives on in Raleigh with a mural on Shaw’s campus along South Blount Street.
Estey Hall’s legacy on campus
For Dr. Valerie Ann Johnson, Dean of the School of Arts, Sciences, and Humanities at Shaw University, buildings like Estey Hall are a link to where we’ve been + a reminder of where we need to go — they’re living monuments.
“Even when we’re rushing to go to a particular meeting or gathering, or in the quiet times, I’ll go in and just look at the bones of the building,” the dean said. “I’m honored that I’m a beneficiary of the struggles that other people faced.”
On the first floor of the building, there’s a row of paintings of the former presidents of the university, beginning with founder Henry Martin Tupper. Dean Johnson walks by the paintings and looks at the transition of presidents.
The story continues to the third floor, where the photograph of Shaw’s current president resides — Dr. Paulette Dillard.
Close to 150 years after Estey Hall first opened its doors to Black women, a Black woman is running the university from inside its walls.
“Many other Black women and men said we can be a viable part of this country, that we can be educated,” Dean Johnson said. “We’re going to have a place in this country, for our children and our children’s children, and those children’s children. I’m the one that they built this for.”
Estey Hall is listed on the National Register of Historic Places + as a Raleigh Historic Landmark.
The National Register of Historic Places nomination form, filed in 1973, recalled that “the 1874-1875 catalogue of the school described Estey Hall in glowing terms.”
“This is the finest School Building in the State,” it read. “It will accommodate about 100 pupils, and the large number of young ladies from the best families in the State, during the first session, has proved the necessity and wisdom of this undertaking.”