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Leading the Way

It’s been more than five years since either Dr. Lawrence Mozell Clark or Dr. Augustus McIver Witherspoon served in the NC State administration. Yet their impact endures, even in their absence.

From their arrival in the NC State administration in the early 1970s, Clark and Witherspoon were forces on campus. They were among the first African-Americans to hold leadership positions on campus, and they used those roles to make NC State a more inclusive place.

“I don’t think you will find a more compassionate team of men who were so concerned about the details of life at North Carolina State for every single person who walked through the door,” said Dr. Sheila Smith McKoy, director of the African American Cultural Center, in a video that’s part of a cultural center exhibit memorializing Clark and Witherspoon. “They weren’t just engaged in diversity efforts for people of African descent. They were engaged in it for campuswide endeavors because they knew how important it was for us to move forward differently at North Carolina State University.”

Larry Monteith, NC State’s chancellor from 1989 to 1998 has called Witherspoon and Clark pioneers for diversity on campus.

Witherspoon’s career as a pathbreaker at NC State predates his tenure as a professor and administrator. He came to NC State in the late 1960s as a graduate student in botany. Witherspoon was the first African-American to earn a master’s degree at NC State and the second to receive a doctorate. He became an instructor after finishing his studies in 1971, eventually becoming the first African-American professor in university history.

Clark came to NC State as a math professor and associate provost in 1974. He was the second African-American administrator in university history. Witherspoon and Clark were founding fathers of organizations and programs that still sustain diversity efforts on campus today, including the African-American Cultural Center, the University-Community Brotherhood Dinner, the Peer Mentor Program and the African American Symposium.

One of the central pieces of the African-American Symposium, a summer orientation program, is a presentation called “Who Am I?” Clark devised it as a way of connecting young students to a rich cultural tradition with African roots thousands of years deep, African American Cultural Center Program Director Toni Thorpe said. It ends with students envisioning their own graduation as an offshoot of that heritage.

“The content of the ‘Who Am I?’ is really important for self-identity, for knowing who you are and where you came from,” said Janell Miller, a senior English major, in the exhibit video.

Clark and Witherspoon strengthened the connection between African-Americans at NC State and their heritage by launching annual trips to west Africa for students in the late 1980s. The trips were perspective-shifting events for participants, according to Carol Love, associate dean emeritus in the College of Natural Resources.

“To visit houses, to visit schools, to visit villages, it was an emotional experience,” Love said in the exhibit video. “(On) a lot of the bus trips I remember, tears were just flowing.”

Witherspoon stayed at NC State until shortly before his death in 1994. The Witherspoon Student Center, which is home to the African American Cultural Center, was named for him. Clark retired in 2007 but made regular visits to campus until shortly before his death in January 2012, Thorpe said.

This year, the African-American Cultural Center is reviving the community brotherhood dinner Clark launched in 1982 and renaming it in his honor. The event will take place March 21 at the McKimmon Center.

“Opening Doors: The Lives and Legacies of Dr. Augustus Witherspoon and Dr. Lawrence M. Clark,” an exhibit at the African American Cultural Center, will run until Aug. 1, 2013. Located on the second floor of the Witherspoon Student Center, the cultural center gallery is open from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 1 p.m to 5 p.m. on Fridays.