After a 53-year hiatus, North Carolina Central University will award a doctorate degree on Friday – three Ph.D.s, in fact – its firsts since the Jim Crow era of the 1960s.
The degrees will be conferred in the field of integrated bioscience to Rasheena Edmondson, Elena Arthur and Helen Onabanjo. The three women will become the sixth, seventh and eighth people to ever receive doctorate degrees from the Durham HBCU.
The school’s first five Ph.D. recipients all earned doctorates in education, from 1955 to 1964. That program, according to the Durham Herald-Sun, “was essentially a segregation-era dodge forced on Central by state higher-ed leaders who were looking for a way around federal court decisions that had begun to integrate university graduate schools.”
By offering a doctorate program at what was then called N.C. College, state leaders hoped to avoid having to admit blacks to Ph.D. programs at UNC-Chapel Hill and other state schools that excluded African Americans.
State higher-education officials eventually pulled the plug Central’s Ph.D. program, for a time making doctoral-level studies the exclusive domain of UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State and UNC-Greensboro.
In 2011, NCCU applied to the University of North Carolina system Board of Governors for permission to once again offer Ph.D. studies. The school said in its application that it wanted to facilitate research into the “cellular, molecular and genetic basis” of diseases that hit blacks and other minorities harder or more often than whites, the Herald-Sun reported. The school also said it wanted to address “the dearth of African-American scientists in biomedical research.”
Edmondson, from Wilson County, hopes to land a job in the pharmaceutical industry after graduation. At Central, she worked alongside NCCU professor Liju Yang to research cellular activities, among other topics, the school said.
Onabanjo, from Nigeria, worked with NCCU professor Kevin Williams on cancer research. She wants to work as a researcher developing new drugs. Onabanjo also is interested in becoming a patient advocate in clinical trials that include diverse populations, the school said.
Arthur, from Ghana, worked with NCCU professor Jiaua Xie on research into proteins that could protect beta cells in the pancreas, which are diminished in patients with diabetes. She plans to enter into a postdoctoral program after graduation.