Meet the Women Behind the Building Names
By Ashlea Jones
Since its founding in 1892, women have been crucial to the success of Winston-Salem State University.
Over the university’s history, five women have earned the distinction of having their names grace WSSU buildings. Here’s a look at women who have helped shape the landscape of the university. Their contributions continue to set the foundation for excellence and student success at WSSU.
Oleona Pegram Atkins: WSSU’s First Lady
Pegram Hall is named for Oleona Pegram, who along with her husband, Dr. Simon Green Atkins, founded WSSU.
Pegram was born in New Bern in 1867. She married Atkins in 1889, three years before the establishment of Slater Industrial Academy, now WSSU. Prior to marrying Atkins, Pegram studied education at Scotia Women’s College in Concord and Fisk University in Nashville.
Pegram was instrumental in the growth and development of WSSU. She taught English at the normal school and served as her husband’s assistant and advisor. Pegram is also the mother of Atkins’ nine children. She and her husband established Columbia Heights, a community around WSSU that promoted home ownership, economic independence, and partnership between blacks and whites.
Pegram died in 1936, two years after her husband. That year, the graduating class had plaques added to the archways that once served as the entry point to the university in memory of the Atkins and their contribution to the university. Since 2009, a new class of WSSU students walk through the archways to symbolize their induction into the Ram family and commitment to the school’s legacy.
Pegram Hall was completed in 1939. For decades the three-story building served as a residence hall for female students but closed in 2009. As envisioned in WSSU’s new master plan, the building would be renovated to create office space.
Women in Library Science: Dr. Eliza Atkins Gleason and Mary McGhee Hairston
Gleason-Hairston Terrace was completed in 2005 and is named for Dr. Eliza Atkins Gleason, the ninth child of Simon Green Atkins and Oleona Pegram Atkins, and Mary McGhee Hairston and her husband Rufus, alumni and benefactors of the university.
Gleason was born in 1909 and grew up on the campus of WSSU. She earned two bachelor’s degrees, one from Fisk University in 1930 and the other in Librarianship from the University of Illinois in 1931. She was employed as an assistant librarian and then head librarian at Municipal College for Negroes in Louisville, now part of the University of Louisville. She later received a master’s degree in library science from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1936 and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1940, becoming the first African-American to acquire a Ph.D. in library science. Her dissertation, “The Southern Negro and the Public Library,” was published as a book in 1941.
That same year, Gleason established the Atlanta University School of Library Service and was the school’s first dean. Gleason was also the first African American to serve on the board of the American Library Association. In 1978, she was appointed to the Chicago Public Library board and became the executive director of the Chicago Black United Fund.
Gleason died in 2009 at the age of 100. She was posthumously inducted into the University of Louisville’s College of Arts and Sciences Hall of Honor. Every three years, the American Library Association awards the Eliza Atkins Gleason Book Award in her honor for the best book written in English in the field of library history. WSSU’s study abroad scholarship – the Atkins, Gleason, Carew Fund for International education – is named in honor of Gleason and her husband and daughter to support students studying a foreign language abroad.
Mary Hairston ‘43 worked as a librarian and was an important influence in the construction of the first public library for African Americans in Winston-Salem. After the death of her husband in 1971, she began to make financial contributions to the university on an anonymous basis. After her death in 1995, also at the age of 100, these contributions became public record. From their estate, the Hairstons donated around $1.3 million to WSSU.
Gleason-Hairston Terrace, located between Wilson Hall and Albert H. Anderson Conference Center, has about 135,000-square-feet of space and offers students a variety of apartment styles.
STEM Pioneer: Dr. Wilveria Bass Atkinson
Dr. Wilveria B. Atkinson was internationally known for her work in science. Atkinson taught biology at WSSU for 30 years. She joined the university in 1970 as an associate professor of biology, eventually becoming the chair of the Life Sciences Department. Kenneth R. Williams, former WSSU president, charged Atkinson with developing a program that would give science graduates an alternative to becoming teachers. Project Strengthen, a program developed by Atkinson, placed students in laboratories and began WSSU’s research culture.
Atkinson, a native of Goldsboro, was the youngest of 11 children. She graduated valedictorian of her high school class. She earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1952 from Howard University and studied microbiology for two years at the University of Madrid in Spain. She received a Ph.D. in immunology from New York University and certificates in molecular biology from Clark-Atlanta University, radioisotope handling and liquid scintillation counting from North Carolina State University (NC State), and lung morphometrics from Harvard University.
Atkinson helped revise the university’s nursing curriculum and helped create summer programs that introduced high school students to WSSU and careers in science. Through her efforts, WSSU was the first campus in the University of North Carolina System to award bachelor’s degrees in molecular biology. She was also an internationally known educator who established scientific and medical training visitation programs at universities in Japan, Australia, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Atkinson was a multi-million dollar grant recipient, who received numerous awards and honors including three citations for excellence from the National Institutes of Health.
A year after her retirement in 1999, WSSU created an endowed position in her name. In 2005, the new sciences building was named in her honor. The 51,000-square-foot building is home to WSSU’s biological sciences and chemistry departments. Atkinson died on Feb. 29, 2008, but her legacy at the university remains.
WSSU’s Hidden Figure: Dr. Elva Johnson Jones
Elva J. Jones Computer Science Building is named in honor of the professor and founding/current chair of the Computer Science Department at WSSU. Jones ‘70 is credited with developing the first concentration in computer science and leading and developing the major programs in computer science and information technology.
Jones was born in Louisburg. She is one of four children. Her parents, who weren’t able to attend college, owned a small farm and saved to college educate their children. Having an interest in math at an early age, Jones was undecided on a major when she arrived at WSSU. Coincidentally, she secured an on-campus job as a student data processor and was quickly elevated to
At the time, WSSU didn’t offer degrees in computer science, so Jones pursued a bachelor’s degree in business. She went on to earn master’s degrees from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and NC State. Then, she became the first African American to obtain a doctorate in engineering and computer studies from NC State.
Jones says her most significant contributions to computer science and WSSU have been elevating and expanding computing as a discipline. Beginning her career at WSSU as a programmer, she gave up her lunch hour to teach programming to expose students to the discipline. Her sacrifice led to WSSU becoming one of the first HBCUs to offer a computer science program.
Jones serves on the North Carolina Space Grant Consortium executive board, the Association of Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Minority Institutions executive board, and the Technical Council Executive Committee and the STEM Education Committee, to name a few. She is the two-time recipient of the NASA JOVE Research Award for her research in Space Science data retrieval. Jones was named Outstanding Woman Leader by the City of Winston-Salem in 2006 and one of the 50 Most Important African Americans in Technology in 2010 by blackmoney.com.
The Elva Jones Computer Science Building, located next to W.B. Atkinson in WSSU’s sciences district, opened in 2004. The $13 million, 62,000-square-foot building includes eight classrooms, seven education/research labs