President David Burks announced via a campus-wide email Monday, Feb. 1, that the University will celebrate Elijah Anthony and Dr. Howard Wright — the first Black undergraduate students to earn bachelor’s degrees from Harding in 1968 — by naming the Administration building in their honor.
In addition to renaming the building, a bronze three-dimensional plaque will bear the images of Anthony and Wright, recounting their stories and legacies at Harding. Plaques will also be installed to honor the first three Black students who enrolled as undergraduates at the University — Lewis Brown, Walter Cunningham and David Johnson — as well as the first two Black students to be awarded graduate degrees from the University in 1965 — Thelma Smith and Curtis Sykes.
A dedication ceremony will be held Homecoming weekend in October 2021 to honor these alumni and the Black community. At this event, Brown, Johnson and Cunningham, who did not graduate from the University, will be awarded honorary degrees during the ceremony, Johnson’s and Cunningham’s posthumously, Burks said in his email.
The decision came after the University Task Force on Recognizing African American Achievement proposed the idea to the board of trustees in October. Dr. Greg Harris, who is the chair of the task force, said that upon the task force’s formation, they began searching for ways in which they could landmark these people on campus. After finding that the Administration building was not dedicated to anyone, they pursued renaming and dedicating the building.
“We were able to come up with this as a great beginning to going down a path of honoring people that have given so much to Harding University, and … in this case, especially our African American alumni,” Harris said.
Wright and Anthony stood out as people to honor, not only because they were the first Black undergraduate students to complete their degrees from Harding, but because of their continued legacy at the University, Harris said.
Anthony said when he came to Harding, it set him on a path he was not anticipating and presented challenges he had not foreseen.
“It was a very hot time for us in the ’60s during the civil rights movement, so coming out of that, we were pro-Black and looking to go in a progressively HBCU direction,” Anthony said. “And I deviated from that.”
Upon his arrival at campus, people were reluctantly cordial and distant, Anthony said.
“Especially for students of color who were coming onto that campus for the first time as full time students, I just expected that there would be somebody there to kind of take us by the hand and say, ‘Hey, I’m your person’… and that was not there,” Anthony said. “So … it was almost like being dropped somewhere and learning firsthand how you’re viewed.”
Anthony said despite these challenges, he learned how to persevere and thrive in an environment that tested his limits.
“It really intensified my desire to fulfill the need that is [at Harding],” Anthony said. “You know, it’s like, when people get to a place where they’re so coldhearted that they cannot sympathize and empathize with others, to me it says that person can’t ever see themselves in the position of those they see going through problems — and I think that’s where compassion begins.”
Anthony said he has become more involved with the University throughout the past several years, after being invited to speak at chapel and on-campus events. He said he has seen great change since his time as a student — an engagement and diversity that was not there before.
“It took us over 50 years to get to this point,” Anthony said. “How much longer will it take us before we can drop all of the superficialities and just love each other as God’s children, regardless of how we look?”
Wright said when he stepped onto Harding’s campus, he did not know he would be stepping into history, nor the journey he would be facing.
“I’m from the North and I’m also Black, so it was an interesting time, it was a difficult time, it was a complex time, it was an extremely [historic] time — little did I know it was going to be that [historic],” Wright said. “God gave me a lot of favor and a lot of grace to get through it.”
Wright said several years after graduating from Harding, he began becoming more involved again by reading publications and learning what was going on at the University. Wright said that upon doing so, he quickly noticed that the proportion of Black students enrolled at the University nearly 20 years later had hardly changed from 1968 when he graduated — roughly 3 or 4%.
“That disturbed me,” Wright said. “So from that point on I started talking to faculty members and staff and administrators, trying to get involved in some of the good things that were going on at Harding so I could tell all of my ministry colleagues that Harding could be a place that … students could come and want to be a part of.”
Wright currently serves on the University board of trustees, as well as the Task Force on Recognizing African American Achievement.
Senior Raissa Ames, who is a former Black Student Association (BSA) president and a current member of the task force, said she is pleased that Wright and Anthony — as well as Brown, Cunningham, Johnson, Smith and Sykes — will be honored and hopes the University will continue to pursue ways to honor and include Black members of the Harding community.
“The decision for the [Administration building] has to do with the fact that it houses both the business and registrar’s offices, [which] play a large role in the admission of students … which at one point did not service Black individuals,” Ames said. “So, to rename this significant building after the first two Black graduates of the University is a powerful statement.”
Ames said she hopes the University will expound upon these efforts by celebrating and appreciating the Black staff on campus — who are essential to the University’s ability to function and succeed — as well as the BSA and Multicultural Association.
“We’re just in awe of them because of the legacy they’ve laid here for so many of us African Americans that are here — Black faculty and staff and fellow alumni — that have come after them,” Harris said. “They forged that road.”
Harris said that Wright and Anthony exemplified bravery, helping and blessing so many people who came after them.
“My journey at Harding was a must for me,” Anthony said. “I needed to go through everything I went through there to bring me to this day that we’re enjoying right now, and this honor that’s being bestowed upon us is because of this journey. We persisted, and there’s nothing that gives me more joy than to realize that … young people will be able to use my experiences as fuel.”