In the fall of 2018, Johnson C. Smith University President Clarence Armbrister looked on in awe as he stood on the concourse of Bank of America Stadium while attending a Panther’s game.
He could see various buildings decorating the Charlotte skyline, and over to the west stood the iconic tower of Biddle Hall, JCSU’s oldest and most recognizable building, “sticking its head up against the fall leaves,” he recalled.
“It was like, what a wonderful sight,” Armbrister continued. “And it’s too bad you can only see it during the day. Then it dawned on me: why don’t we light it up and then everybody can see it all the time?”
Armbrister went back to his executive team and started to move on lighting the tower. He also talked of restoring its native bell and clock, which had been inoperable for an unknown amount of time.
While attending the Charlotte Symphony one night, one person who heard Armbrister’s plan for restoring and illuminating Biddle Hall’s clock tower pledged $25,000. Another $25,000 came from an alum during a general body meeting.
Soon other money came in — $13,000 from the Marion Stedman Covington Foundation, with additional dollars from the National Park Service.
With the lighting now installed, Armbrister said work on the bell and clock is nearing completion, and soon his vision, three years in the making, will be fully brought to life.
“I’m really excited,” he told QCity Metro. “The lighting is going to be very modern lighting. If Charlotte is celebrating Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer awareness and all the lights in uptown are pink, then our tower will be pink. If we’re celebrating something here on campus, then you’ll be able to see gold and blue.”
For several days now, the bell has been pealing every 15 minutes as it undergoes testing.
Armbrister said he wants to take the university in a modern direction and become more visible beyond the Historic West End. He said his efforts to raise JCSU’s profile in Charlotte have been aided by city officials, including Mayor Vi Lyles.
“She made JCSU one of her four priorities in terms of corporate response, and she certainly made us part of the consciousness of the corporate and philanthropic community,” he said. “The lighting will be evidence of that.”
Armbrister said the Biddle Hall updates will serve two purposes: keeping JCSU on the conscience of the community and showing the connection the university has with the rest of the region, particularly uptown.
“Because Biddle Hall sits on the highest point in Charlotte, I think it serves as a beacon of hope, stability and pride, especially when you think of all the things that have come and gone in 154 years,” he said, referencing the university’s founding in 1867. “Johnson C. Smith and this towering edifice stands strong.”
A Covid update
For the first time in its modern history JCSU did not hold an in-person commencement last spring due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Like most universities around the country, it sent students home three months into the semester and all campus-related activities were cancelled, including graduation ceremonies.
This year, as Covid-19 cases decline and vaccinations against the virus rise, JCSU will move forward with an in-person commencement for its graduating class on May 16 at Bojangles Coliseum. The university also has invited its 2020 graduates to participate.
“We believe we can safely honor our graduates, and the students are delighted with the prospects of being able to have an in-person commencement,” Armbrister said.
Other schools also are finding ways to honor last year’s Covid class.
UNC Charlotte will host an outdoor commencement May 13-15 at its football stadium, where members of its Class of 2020 are invited to participate.
Queens University will have two in-person commencement ceremonies, one for the Class of 2020 on May 1 and another for the Class of 2021 on May 8.
In addition to preparing for caps, gowns and the conferring of degrees, JCSU’s leadership is gearing up to remedying what Covid-19 stole from this year’s freshman class, many of whom, because of the pandemic, have never stepped foot on the leafy campus.
Armbrister said JCSU leaders want to organize a “sophomore summer experience,” where students can get familiar with campus life and take classes for credit with no charge to them at all.
“We’re actively seeking funding for this, because we don’t want them to have to pay for anything for the four-to-five weeks starting in mid-to-late July,” Armbrister said. “This would be great for them to have this opportunity.”