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Sarah Tupper and Estey Hall

Sarah Tupper and the Women of Shaw University

It is often said that behind every great man is a great woman. In the case of Shaw University, the cliché turns out to be true. During the early years of Shaw, founder Henry Martin Tupper’s wife, Sarah, was perhaps just as significant.

Sarah Leonard Tupper started hosting Bible study classes for newly freed African-American women in the Tuppers’ own home when they first arrived in Raleigh. Henry hosted similar classes for men in the Guion Hotel downtown. These classes were the start of what would eventually become the first institution of higher learning for blacks in the South.

Sarah was also instrumental in persuading her brother, Judson Wade Leonard, for whom Leonard Hall is named, to support the school financially in the early years. Without these contributions, Shaw may never have opened up the medical school which was vital to educating North Carolina’s black doctors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

When Shaw was founded in 1865, not only was there rampant racism in the United States, especially in the South, but sexism was also prevalent. Women were rarely treated as equals, so when the Tuppers decided that women should have equal access to education at Shaw, it was no small gesture.

Estey Hall: Dedicated to Higher Learning for African-American Women

When Estey Hall was completed in 1874, it was the first building dedicated to higher learning for African-American women in the United States. Today, Estey Hall is a point of pride for Shaw University and Raleigh. It’s one of the older buildings in the city, and when it was built was widely regarded as one of the most impressive in the state.

The 1874-75 Shaw catalog describes Estey Hall as such:

“This is the finest School Building in the State, and is the pride of the colored people of North Carolina, as it affords facilities for the education of their daughters which cannot be surpassed. It will accommodate about one hundred pupils, and the large number of young ladies from the best families in the State, during the first session, has proved the necessity and wisdom of this undertaking. The school is destined to be a Fountain of Light, and is earnestly hoped that some lover of female education will amply endow this department of the school.”

Estey Hall did indeed become a ‘foundation of light.’ Over the last 143 years, the building has seen both good and bad days. The building has stood through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement, and continues to be a symbol of the power of education to uplift people of color and women.

Today, Estey Hall is home to the Office of the President, where Dr. Paulette Dillard is fourth female president of Shaw University. Dr. Dillard, who was preceded by Tashni-Ann Dubroy, Irma McClaurin, and Dorothy Cowser Yancy respectively, is far from the only woman in a fundamental leadership role at Shaw. A few of these women include Dr. Pamela Denning, Interim Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs; Dr. Renata Dusenbury, Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs; Dr. Kandace Harris, Special Assistant to the President and Board of Trustees Liaison; Gwen Kea, Vice President for Finance and Administration; and Marilyn Richards, Interim Vice President of the Office of Institutional Advancement.

Furthermore, Shaw has produced countless women who have gone on to launch amazing careers as doctors, lawyers, activists, businesswomen, entertainers, and politicians. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that an institution with such a historic dedication to women’s empowerment and equality would have such a strong representation from highly accomplished women leaders.