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NCCU Chancellor Speaks at Black History Month Celebration

By Robin Arnette
March 2008

NCCU Chancellor Charles Nelms
NCCU Chancellor Charles Nelms (Photo courtesy of North Carolina Central University and Mihi Bell)
Historian and civil rights activist Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), shown here as a young man, developed Negro History Week in 1926.
Historian and civil rights activist Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), shown here as a young man, developed Negro History Week in 1926. (Photo courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Most Americans know that February is Black History Month, but many don't realize the origins of the observance. That's why the employees of the Research Triangle Park (RTP) campus of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sponsored "Carter G. Woodson and the Origins of Multiculturalism," one of several events held to celebrate the contributions of African Americans to the nation's culture and history. Employees from the EPA, the NIEHS, as well as members of the general public, gathered at the EPA Auditorium on February 12 to hear Charles Nelms, Ph.D., deliver the keynote address.

Nelms is the tenth Chancellor of North Carolina Central University ( NIEHS Website in Durham, North Carolina, one of the 16 four-year institutions of higher learning in the University of North Carolina system. As an experienced university administrator, Nelms considers promoting multiculturalism part of his job. According to him, a university campus is a microcosm of the larger world community, and multiculturalism, which he defined as the preservation of different cultures or cultural identities within a state or nation, is essential to a university's health and to society at large.

Nelms stressed the importance of learning about Carter G. Woodson, Ph.D. ( Exit NIEHS Website, the founder of the study of black history and multiculturalism. "It doesn't matter if you are black, white, Asian, Latino, male or female because it's all part of the history we need to understand," he explained. "We're really not talking about black history; we're talking about American history."

Nelms then treated the audience to what he called "adult story hour" by relaying his childhood memories of growing up on a farm outside of Crawfordsville, Arkansas. "I grew up in the Delta region of Arkansas, the poorest most racially segregated area in the U.S.," he said. "Since the school year was organized around the harvesting and planting season, you're looking at a person who never attended school longer than 4.5 months out of the year."

Fortunately, Nelms' parents stressed the importance of education for him and his 10 brothers and sisters. Even though his mother and father had little formal schooling, they knew that education was the great equalizer and the key to a better life. They encouraged all of their children to aim high. "My mother told me I could be anything that I wanted to be, so when I got to Indiana University, and I was having difficulty with statistics, they told me I should drop the course; I didn't," Nelms stated. "Because my mother had already convinced me of my potential, I chose to believe my mother."

Nelms went on to earn a bachelor's degree from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and master's and doctoral degrees from Indiana University. He served with distinction as chancellor of the University of Michigan at Flint and Indiana University at Richmond; he also held several teaching and administrative positions at colleges and universities throughout the U.S.

Nelms said he tells his students that they are more than their SAT and GRE scores because the educational system hasn't developed a test that can measure motivation, persistence and hard work. Indeed, Nelms is a walking example of what a person may achieve despite hardships.

He closed his talk by encouraging the audience to leave the world better than they found it. His three keys to changing the world included the following precepts.

  1. Educate yourself about the issues, and the way to do that is to study all history.
  2. Educate your children by exposing them to art, literature, mathematics and science. Teach your children how to read, and they will develop a love for it.
  3. Share your talents and resources with someone else.

Nelms said, "I had a few choices after growing up in Arkansas. I could have been angry, but that wouldn't have changed the world. We should live our lives so that our children will tell their children that we not only stood for something, but we worked to make it happen."

A Quick Black History Month Quiz

Nelms recounted that as a seventh-grader, he won a contest at his school's annual Negro History Week observances, now known as Black History Month. The contest tested the students' knowledge of black history, and he won by answering the following questions. Do you know the answers?

Q: Who was the first African American to win a Nobel Peace Prize? What year did he or she win it, and what was it for?

A: Ralph Bunche, Ph.D. Exit NIEHS Website (, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for negotiating the Palestine peace agreement between the Arab states and Israel.

Our Friends Across the Lake: The EPA-RTP Black History Month Celebration Organizing Committee

Employees representing various offices within the EPA were responsible for organizing this year's event. Several of them spoke during the program:

  • Wanda Pemberton, Office of Administration & Resources Management (OARM)
  • Steve Van Horn, OARM
  • Lillian Bradley, Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards (OAQPS)
  • Ron Evans, OAQPS

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