Phyliss Craig-Taylor entered the third grade with a cigar box where she kept a sad and unusual collection – the debris thrown at her, one of just a handful of black students, by her white classmates.
After school, she and her mother would move the sticks, stones and occasional shards of glass into a larger bag, which would eventually be used in court to further racial integration efforts. It was an experience that propelled Craig-Taylor to become both a lawyer and an advocate for social justice.
The youngest of 12 children growing up on an Alabama farm, she would go on to attend the University of Alabama and Columbia University, while most of her older siblings earned their degrees at colleges founded to educate African-American students.
Now dean of the N.C. Central University law school, Craig-Taylor was recently tapped by President Barack Obama to serve on an advisory board for historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
Founded during the era of segregation, the nation’s 100 HBCUs, including 10 in North Carolina, still play an outsized role in educating minority students. About 15 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned by African-Americans came from HBCUs in 2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
I have seen the role that they [HBCUs] have played in advancing opportunities for African-Americans in this country because I lived it. It’s not somebody else’s story.
The advisory board was formed to help shape education policy that affects these schools, many of which have faced enrollment declines and financial problems in recent years. It’s a subject about which Craig-Taylor is passionate.
“I have seen the role that they have played in advancing opportunities for African-Americans in this country because I lived it,” she says. “It’s not somebody else’s story.”
Johnson Akinleye, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at N.C. Central, says Craig-Taylor has both the passion and experience to promote HBCUs effectively.
“She will be a strong voice, and intelligent voice, a voice that is well aware of the pertinent issues that surround HBCUs,” says Akinleye. “Who she is and where she comes from, her experience and background, make her a very knowledgeable person to explain these issues.”
Facing hostility head on
Craig-Taylor and her siblings grew up working the fields to raise cotton and vegetables, but they were urged to pursue a different kind of future. While her parents hadn’t been to college, all 10 of their surviving children earned degrees, mostly from HBCUs.
Active in the civil rights movement, her parents framed their childrens’ education as part of that struggle. That’s why they opted to send Craig-Taylor and two of her siblings to white schools, despite the hostility they faced.
The debris Craig-Taylor collected in the cigar box was used in one of several court cases that ended the choice policy in favor of more deliberate integration.
“My mother would tell me that one day this could be used as evidence in court to show that people should not be treated this way,” Craig-Taylor says. “We understood our experience was part of a larger journey.”
When a high school counselor told Craig-Taylor that she wasn’t college material, the 15-year-old left school and went to East Alabama University, an HBCU her sister was attending.