Thirty-nine years ago, Herman Eure became the first African-American man to become a full-time faculty member at Wake Forest University. Eure, a biology professor who specializes in parasitology, studying the relationships between parasites and their hosts, is retiring.
“He’s been a very significant member of the faculty, both as a professor and as a kind of pioneer in integration,” Provost Emeritus Ed Wilson said.
“He is a notably fine human being, I would say.”
Eure grew up in the small rural town of Corapeake, in Gates County, which is in the northeastern corner of North Carolina. He was the seventh of 10 children, and after graduating as high school valedictorian, he went to Maryland State College on academic and athletic scholarships.
At the school, he became involved in student government and the civil rights movement. By the time he graduated in 1969, he had been awarded a prestigious Ford Foundation Fellowship, which would provide funds for his five-year graduate program.
Eure came to look at Wake Forest in the summer of 1969, and met biology professor Gerald Esch, who was chairman of the department’s graduate committee at the time. “I remember sitting in my office, and I looked up, and there was this black guy standing in the doorway,” Esch said. “He said he wanted to come to Wake to study parasitology, and the longer we talked, the more impressed I became with him.”
“My feeling was that once in, I knew I could do well because I was motivated,” Eure said.
“He and I started working together right away,” Esch said. After completing three years of required coursework, Eure decided to enter the Ph.D. program. He conducted his research at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.
As a graduate student, Eure encountered some pushback on campus. “I was the first and only black graduate student; it was new ground for me. I got tired of being Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett,” he said.
“Even though there were negative things on campus, home was in the biology department. You just don’t let it stick on you.”
Eure said failure was never an option for him when he began at Wake Forest. “Just let me get my foot in the door, let me get the opportunity. … How was I going to go back to all those people in Corapeake? How was I going to tell them I didn’t do what was needed to be done to be successful?”
A first among faculty
Upon completing his degree, Esch told Eure the department was interested in hiring him. Tom Mullen, former dean of the college and professor emeritus of history, said he remembered interviewing Eure for the first time. “I had heard about Herman’s ability, about his emotional balance and maturity and his willingness to work extremely hard,” Mullen said. “When I interviewed him, it didn’t take very long to reach the judgment that the advance validations I had had were all fully justified.”
Mullen said it was difficult to persuade Eure to stay at Wake Forest because he was in high demand at that time, but that he’s glad he was able to. “I think, I hope and believe that he has found it a good decision on his part. It certainly was a good one for us,” he added.
Eure said he decided he was going to stay at Wake Forest, and was confident that he would succeed as the first African-American full-time male faculty member. He and Dolly McPherson were the first tenure-track faculty members who were African-American.
“Having grown up in the civil rights era, it was just natural to be someone trying to do the right kinds of things. I knew what needed to be done and how to do it,” he said.
Eure said some faculty members were concerned about his judgment in the classroom. “They thought I was always going to take the sides of black students. But, I would look at a situation based on merits and look at those merits. Lots of issues, student issues, have nothing to do with race, and once the faculty figured out I was that kind of person, then I think some of those things subsided,” he said.
“He was somebody that was always fair in dealing with everybody,” Mullen said.
Eure encountered some misconceptions among students, too. “A lot of the students thought I was an athlete,” he said. “I was an anomaly to them; I looked just like one of the students. People kept thinking that I was not a faculty member. Most of the kids had never been taught by someone who was black.”
“I remember a young woman asked me if I could fix something, and we had vending machines in building. I just said, ‘no,’ and kept going down the hall,” Eure said.
Focus on students
Mullen said that Eure did what the best faculty members do: He put students in a position to succeed and reach their potential. That work and mindset led to Eure’s appointments as biology department chair and associate dean, Mullen said.
Eure said one of the highlights of his career was being named associate dean of faculty development, a position he held for four years, from 2006 to 2010. He said that being selected as the first faculty member to deliver the school’s Founder’s Day address in 2008 also was a crowning achievement.
Eure received the inaugural Trident Professor Award from the Gamma Chapter of Delta Delta Delta in 1990, the Jon Reinhardt Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2001, and the Donald O. Schoonmaker Faculty Award for Community Service in 2012.
He helped found the school’s Office of Minority Affairs, now the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, in 1977.
Words for Wake Forest
Eure said he’s seen positive and negative changes throughout his time at Wake Forest. “On the good side, we’ve become more diverse and more accepting of difference. Diversity has impacted Wake Forest in a lot of positive ways,” he said. Wake Forest’s undergraduate population has become markedly more diverse since Eure began his career. The percentage of undergraduate minority students at Wake Forest has gone from 4.5 percent in 1976 (two years after Eure joined the faculty) to 23 percent in the fall semester of 2012.
He also had some warnings about the future of Wake Forest: “One of the biggest challenges in the future is going to be access to Wake, because the cost of education is so high it’s going to preclude some people from being able to think about coming to Wake Forest,” he said.
Eure said the atmosphere at Wake Forest had changed greatly since he first arrived on campus 39 years ago. “The climate now is more accepting of diversity; it doesn’t have the negative stigma it once had,” Eure said.
The number of full-time minority faculty on the Reynolda campus increased from 8.3 percent in the fall semester of 1992 to 17 percent in the fall semester of 2012. Likewise, undergraduate minority student enrollment increased from 12 percent in the fall semester of 1992 to 23 percent in the fall semester of 2012.
Mullen said that Eure helped to change the culture of the institution, by working to ensure that Wake Forest grew to be “less and less of a one-race college, which of course it had been for a very long time.”
Mullen said that in addition to changing Wake Forest’s culture, Eure changed mindsets and blazed a trail for other African-American professors. “It’s fair to say there were people, who had been at Wake Forest for a long time, who didn’t quite realize at the time he came how much of a difference an African-American faculty member could make,” Mullen said.
Eure is married to Kelli Sapp, who works as a professor at High Point University. He has two children, Lauren and Jared. Both followed in his footsteps and are teachers in Winston-Salem. He also has four grandchildren. Eure said he enjoys spending time with his family, listening to jazz and blues music, and cooking.
Although Eure retired, he still is involved at Wake Forest as a researcher professor, and he serves on the doctoral committees of two PhD students. He and his wife are co-chairs of the program committee for the American Society of Parasitologists.
“I will always be involved with students. I think it’s important to be a role model. My thing is, you retire at a time you still have lots of life. I'm not tired of teaching; it was just time,” Eure said.
Wilson said Eure will surely be missed, but his impact will remain. “I think if you trace the history of the school, he has been responsible for laying the foundation for us to have a truly diversified campus, diversified in faculty and student body. And he’s done it with skill and with grace all of the time,” he said.
“He has come to represent Wake Forest in its totality.”