Like many alumni and students at Shaw University, Mecca Dixon has mixed emotions about the university’s request to rezone much of its 26-acre campus to allow buildings up to 30 stories and make way for dramatic redevelopment.
Dixon, who is pursuing a Master of Divinity degree, worries it would compromise the university’s historic downtown campus and accelerate gentrification in the neighborhoods around the South’s oldest historically Black university.
But like many students and alumni, she understands Shaw is facing financial hardship and hasn’t received the same philanthropic and government investments as many predominantly white institutions. A decline in student enrollment has furthered the financial hardship; the campus reported that it had 1,067 students in 2021, less than half its historic enrollment.
Rezoning would give the school a path for new revenue, which would come from leasing land to developers to build towering new offices and apartments. School leaders say it could help fulfill campus needs—like new residence halls, a student center, athletic facilities, a life sciences building, and stadium—that it couldn’t otherwise afford.
The 157-year-old campus has a prime location at Raleigh’s rapidly redeveloping southern edge, and other than the state and city governments, the university is the largest landholder downtown. There is already $5.7 billion in the pipeline for development downtown, including two hotels, nearly 900 apartments, and office and retail developments to the immediate north and west of campus. The city is accepting inquiries to develop another two city blocks near the school.
The land Shaw is seeking to rezone was valued between $160 and $270 million as of 2019—12 times the amount in Shaw’s $13 million endowment and four times its annual $41 million budget. The university said it does not have an estimate of expected revenue from leasing the land to developers.
In May 2022, the university first alerted nearby property owners of the intent to rezone. Ahead of a city council meeting where the plan would be discussed, the university released webinars on the proposal for “The ShawU District,” the newest of downtown’s destination districts, in February and March. Campus leadership and professional partners touted it as a way to move the university forward economically and academically.
“The idea is Shaw maintains its uniqueness and builds on that, and becomes a district that is a part of downtown but celebrates unique Black culture, entrepreneurship, all of the things that an area that celebrates us would do in Raleigh, and it does not currently exist,” said Paulette Dillard, the university’s president, in the webinar.
But others have wondered what the cost is—particularly for the two campus buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and others that add to a historic district. Among them: Estey Hall, constructed in the early 1870s with bricks that Shaw students—many of whom were recently emancipated—dug from clay soil themselves. The hall was the first higher-education building for Black women in the country and remains the oldest standing building on campus.
Estey would not be redeveloped, but many of the buildings directly around it could be demolished and rebuilt. And written into the rezoning application is a provision that if a historic building is sufficiently damaged by natural or unintended causes, it can be razed. Historic preservationists and alumni note that there’s surely a possibility of a structure cracking or bricks falling if much of the campus is under construction.
“Many people have wanted to purchase that land,” Dixon said. “There’s just a lot of questions of whether the intentions and wants are true and pure for what the university needs, what students need.”
Another concern for some is trust that the university is making sound decisions and being transparent about where redevelopment will happen and how money will be spent.
Kasonia Smith, a 2023 Shaw graduate, wishes the redevelopment, and its impact on current and future students, was better communicated to students. The university’s first community meeting on the plan, in May 2022, took place after students had already left for the summer. Otherwise, she said she understands the financial needs.
“If we don’t take this initiative to get help to do this rezoning, then Shaw is going to become nonexistent by 2035,” Smith said.
The Raleigh City Council will decide whether to rezone the land. The Planning Commission, which advises the council, recommended that the city approve Shaw’s proposal in a 7-1 vote in February.
But when it went before the City Council on May 2, the council members punted until June 20, asking the university to return with provisions that provide certainty to the many stakeholders, including a written commitment to hold public meetings about what redevelopment could look like once rezoning is approved.
‘We Do So Much with So Little’
As a nonprofit university, any revenue the school makes from development is supposed to be used to serve the mission of the university.
University leadership discusses the potential for additional housing not exclusive to students, or academic buildings as a way to build things the school couldn’t afford on its own. (A life sciences building is something Dillard often touts; she’s a three-time HBCU graduate who has a Ph.D. in cell biology from Clark Atlanta University as well as an MBA, and previously worked for Quest Diagnostics and GlaxoSmithKline.)
Rezoning is a way for the land-rich university to bring in new revenue, but how much the university plans to earn from future tenants remains unclear. Nearby Saint Augustine’s University recently announced a deal to lease land for a $75 million housing development. Shaw’s landholdings are significantly greater.
As a small HBCU, Shaw has not benefited from affluent alums and intergenerational wealth as many historically white universities have.
“HBCUs from the very beginning were funded at much lower rates than most majority institutions, and part of that has to do with the value put on the education of African Americans by whites,” said Marybeth Gasman, a professor at Rutgers University who studies HBCUs. “Shaw has never been an institution that was fully funded in a way that would make it prosper in the way that it should.”
HBCUs like Shaw also typically serve families who can’t afford high tuition, let alone donations. Over the past decade, five in six of Shaw’s students received Pell Grants for those with exceptional financial need—roughly 2.5 times the national average.
Dillard sat down with The Assembly in a historic home across the street from the main campus. If the rezoning gets approved, the university would relocate the home. Its windows look out on Estey Hall, which sits empty as the building gets a new HVAC system, a new roof, and new floors. Dillard’s normal office is on Estey’s fourth floor.
“Our single largest asset is the real estate, because we have a very small endowment,” Dillard said. The $13 million endowment is a small fraction of what universities with similar enrollment have; Raleigh’s all-women Meredith College, for example, had a $125 million endowment as of June 2022.
Dillard, who became interim president in 2017 before her position was made permanent in 2018, said that across the country, liberal arts colleges are facing a demographic cliff. Shaw is under pressure to upgrade its facilities to compete with other universities for a shrinking pool of students.
And Shaw is more dependent on student revenue than most. Over the past decade, two-thirds of Shaw’s revenue came from tuition, room, and board, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The nationwide average across all universities is 40 percent.
It’s a problem Shaw’s other leaders have highlighted as they pitch rezoning.
“We have no desire for Shaw University to be anything but a university of higher learning, but we do want to modernize so we can attract students, so that we can retain students, so that we can attract the best faculty and staff,” trustee Jermaine Simmons said in the March webinar. “To be quite honest, Shaw University is such a blessing because we do so much with so little.”
Preserving a Place in Time
Tod Hamlin answered his phone on a Monday afternoon and was surprised to hear the caller mention the name of his grandmother Ernestine Pegues Hamlin.
Ernestine was the daughter of Rev. Dr. Albert Pegues, who moved to Raleigh in 1886 to become chair of Shaw’s philosophy and languages program. The university was just 21 years old—six years younger than Pegues himself, who was born into slavery in McFarlan, North Carolina.
Ernestine was born in 1890, attended high school at Shaw because there was no secondary school for Black children in Raleigh at the time, and later worked at the university.
In 1919, Pegues was promoted to dean of the Theological School and purchased a stately Greek Revival home on the north side of campus. A century later, the school is considering relocating the home and its pastel yellow 1920s neighbor to make way for development.
“Can I get my siblings on the line?” Hamlin asked after hearing about the proposal for the first time.
Built around 1855, the house had been home to a number of politically connected, wealthy, white Raleighites, including Josephus Daniels, the former News & Observer editor and a leading instigator of the 1898 Wilmington Massacre. Ernestine inherited the home from her parents after her father’s death in 1929.
The Assembly’s call was the first that Hamlin, his sister Peri, and his older brother Alan—Ernestine’s only known living relatives—heard that their grandparents’ home could be relocated. Their father had sold the property to Shaw in 1996, the year after Ernestine died at 104 years old.
“Our legacy is tied up in the school just as much as it is in the home,” said Peri Hamlin. “I think about our great-grandfather who was born into slavery and he got a Ph.D. and he went back to school and he wrote a book about HBCUs across the country.”
Daniels—and not Pegues—is the former resident of the home Shaw named in its reasoning to move the home from its current location.
“We have a house built by a Confederate general, occupied by another Confederate officer, lived in primarily by Josephus Daniels—and we all know his history—and occupied by, for about 10 years, the dean of the divinity school of Shaw University,” Dillard said in the March webinar.
Both Raleigh’s Historic Development Commission and local historian Carmen Cauthen, author of the book Historic Black Neighborhoods of Raleigh, feel the university is cherry-picking from history.
“It’s ironic that that’s the argument, when the school was built on a plantation,” said Cauthen, who added that the former owner of Shaw’s property was an enslaver, a congressman, a white supremacist. “If you want to get rid of that house, you have to get rid of the campus. It’s an inconsistency.”
Relocating historic homes is allowed and not without precedent in Raleigh. Some residents have suggested that the homes be placed near Estey Hall to serve as a welcome center, a proposition Dillard opposes.
“I cannot and will not turn the campus into a museum or a historic site. Because first and foremost, it is a university, a dynamic place,” Dillard said.
The university has not specified where the Hamlin family’s former home would be moved, a fact that makes some alumni and preservationists nervous. The university has said most historic buildings like Estey will be preserved even if zoning is approved.
The Hamlins concurred that education afforded their great-grandfather’s success, and access to education should be Shaw’s top priority.
Tod Hamlin said that while he wants to see the property kept intact, “I’m much more attached to this HBCU lasting for generations than the home staying where it was originally built.”
‘Will No Longer Host a Public Mosque’
What isn’t protected under local historic preservation requirements is the longest-standing masjid, or mosque, in Raleigh.
In 1982, Saudi Arabia gave $1 million to Shaw University to establish an international and Islamic studies center and masjid. For over a decade, the Saudi royal family sent children to Shaw University for an American education. A masjid served the needs of their children and other Muslim students, as well as the “community at large.” Raleigh sold the school the land it now sits on.
It’s now the oldest mosque in the city, but because it’s still not yet 50—the age the field generally considers structures deserving of preservation—it has not been considered for historic preservation status.
The nearly 3-acre parcel that the masjid sits on is included in the university’s rezoning plan, and has an estimated value of up to $16 million.
Many people who worship there worry about its fate if rezoning is approved, and came to the May 2 City Council meeting carrying “Muslims Matter,” “Mosque Matters,” and “Respect Religion” signs.
The masjid has been closed to the public since the pandemic began in 2020. Its leadership has repeatedly requested it be reopened. Services and events have been held in the university’s chapel, which, like most other buildings, has long since reopened.
Nigel Edwards, an attorney who works with the mosque’s board, has accused the school of “discrimination” for keeping it closed.
In an April 2022 letter, the university told Edwards that it was OK for the chapel to have services, because those were university led and sponsored, and that the university only denied use to outside organizations. It wasn’t until March 2023 that Masjid King Khalid’s board learned via an email from Shaw that it “will no longer host a public mosque.”
The university and the mosque’s lawyers are working out an agreement, but conditions like not allowing a Sunday school, or terminating the MOU if the rezoning decision is denied or delayed beyond August, are nonstarters for Edwards.
Masjid King Khalid’s supporters assume the building itself isn’t likely to survive redevelopment.
“We’ve taken them on their word that they want to lease out the land: knock the buildings down and lease out the land,” Edwards said, adding that some in the community want to see the masjid remain, while others are OK with being in a new building.
Taking Advantage of a Boom
Shaw’s rezoning wasn’t on the agenda for the June 6 City Council meeting, but Raleigh’s booming development was certainly on people’s minds.
“My neighbors and my children are losing their homes because the taxes are increasing so much,” said Cynthia Vinston, who has owned her home in southeast Raleigh for 21 years.
Vinston lives roughly a mile from Shaw’s campus, and while she hasn’t been following the school’s rezoning effort, she says she gets regular mailers and texts asking if she’s interested in selling the home Habitat for Humanity helped her to purchase. She says if she were to sell her home, it would be back to Habitat.
Two years ago, a 1,050-square-foot home in her neighborhood sold to an LLC for $155,000. After a few updates, it sold for $335,000 10 months later.
“We feel like we built our neighborhood and we feel like the city is forcing us out with the high taxes, with the gentrification,” Vinston said. “Do you have to make six figures in order to live in Raleigh?”
Four years ago, The New York Times highlighted the historic neighborhood south and east of Shaw in a story about predominantly Black, Hispanic, and Asian downtown neighborhoods growing whiter and wealthier nationwide. The trend has accelerated since then.
“Families that got pushed out of the area will never have any hopes of being there,” Dixon, the Shaw divinity student, said. “It’s really challenging for me that this has happened.”
Prior to enrolling in divinity school, Dixon studied psychology and worked in housing. She’s currently researching the psychological impact of people who are displaced from their community because of gentrification.
She’s intrigued by statements the university has made about how it could bring in more grocery stores or Black- and Latino-owned businesses, but worries that making the area “more attractive” could result in the displacement she’s seen elsewhere.
“All money isn’t good money,” Dixon said. “How do we look at and protect the interest of Shaw University with it still being sustainable and viable?”
Dillard acknowledged that gentrification is a real concern in Raleigh. “But I’m not perpetuating it,” she said. “I’m trying to find a way to revitalize what is here and have the ShawU District.”
Trusting in the Future
Some alumni who understand the financial impetus to rezone still struggle to feel comfortable with the people leading the charge.
Shaw’s 19 elected members on its board of trustees include just two women, and a handful members have served for more than two decades, including the chair, the vice chair, and the former chair.
About a decade ago, the university’s highest-paid employee was sentenced to jail for scamming the Environmental Protection Agency and employing his wife and children on the federal grant.
Around that time, the university reported on five separate IRS forms required by tax-exempt organizations that an insurance company owned by the brother of then-Chair Willie E. Gary was paid at least $5.5 million for insurance, a precedent that makes some in the community bristle wondering who will be offered development opportunities.
While the university’s leadership changed in the wake of these scandals, the board remained intact and accusations of nepotism and corruption have lingered. Some recall a recently-settled whistleblower suit alleging a vice president awarded a contract without the competitive bidding process a decade ago.
A 2019 report the university commissioned from the Urban Land Institute recommended adding “generational diversity” to the board and moving away from vendors with “longstanding relationships” to the school. Nonprofit best practices usually advise rotating members off a board after two three-year terms.
The most recent bylaws for Shaw’s board that The Assembly was able to obtain require a one-year absence after the third consecutive three-year term, but don’t include lifetime limits, meaning a trustee could serve decades.
According to Dillard, the university’s bylaws allow trustees to extend their terms beyond a third term, without time off, by majority vote. She mentioned she was the third president in the past decade and said having institutional memory on the board can have its benefits.
“If you have a great deal of leadership turnover in the presidency, and turnover among executives, and then you have that same kind of turnover in terms of your board, that may or may not be an ideal scenario either.”
The four longest-serving trustees did not respond to a request for comment.
Dillard wonders when the past can remain in the past. She was hired as a professor over a decade ago and has been in the presidency for nearly six years. She sees Shaw as having stable leadership, but knows there will never be an answer that satisfies the questions of what happened over a decade ago.
Eugene Myrick, a 1994 Shaw graduate who co-founded a coalition of alums and community stakeholders called Save our Shaw, wants to see the university succeed, but is among those who question its current leadership.
Myrick sees the school’s declining enrollment and closure of a dorm, the mosque, and some services as “dismemberment” and “constructive eviction.”
“Shaw’s saying ‘You can’t get money off of tuition alone’—you can’t get money off of no tuition: there’s currently an empty dorm,” Myrick said at the April 4 City Council meeting.
“Shaw has been operating in crisis mode,” he said. “It’s been kind of frustrating, there’s no other way to explain it, because we have bad management at the school.”
Myrick said that he’s gotten a lot of pushback for his criticism, but also support from fellow alumni. “Enough is enough. We’re at the danger of not having a university,” Myrick said.
The May City Council meeting was standing room only, with a vast majority of attendees there in opposition of the rezoning request.
Michael Hall, a 1980 graduate, sat at the back of the room dressed in a seersucker suit and yellow tie. Despite the packed room, the council heard just four minutes of public testimony from each side.
“Things just aren’t being transparent, and that makes us question the integrity of everything and that makes us question the intent,” Hall, who drove from Charlotte to attend, told The Assembly.
Hall recalled the first time he went into Estey Hall, in the mid ’60s when he was around 5 years old. He remembered learning about students who formed an arm-in-arm ring around the building to keep bulldozers from tearing it down in the 1970s. He knew the history of recently emancipated people digging clay to make the bricks.
“Nobody is against development. We just want to see it done right, and these are not the people we trust to do it, these are not the people,” Hall said of the university’s trustees.
Hall also wants to see the university preserve public spaces like the mosque—something Raleigh City Council member Megan Patton highlighted as well. The council can’t regulate future tenants of a building, but it could condition that a certain amount of space be used for similar purposes, in this case something to serve the Muslim community.
“I think everyone is on the same page that we want Shaw to be wildly successful, and we want this to be and feel good for the community members who are affected,” Patton said.
The council members voted unanimously to reschedule the zoning hearing to June 20, asking the university to continue communicating with stakeholders. Their request was three-part: to see a written commitment for public meetings during the campus planning process, have an outside party monitor vibrations in historic buildings, and find a way to show how Shaw, or the community, will benefit if any property is sold.
Last Saturday, Myrick stood in front of a gathering of 40 outside Shaw for a rally ahead of the meeting, including representatives from Save Our Shaw, Muslims for Social Justice, and Friends of Shaw U.
Myrick said he does not feel like Shaw’s leadership has had the community conversations the council directed them to before next week’s meeting.
“We want to modernize, but we don’t want to commercialize our university; we have not seen any plans,” Myrick said.
Ren Larson is a staff reporter at The Assembly. She previously worked for The Texas Tribune and ProPublica’s investigative team, and as a data reporter with The Arizona Republic. She holds a master’s of public policy and an M.A. in international and area studies from the University of California, Berkeley.