Glenda Phillips Hightower was the valedictorian at her high school in Burlington, North Carolina, but had no college to attend until Elon University offered her full tuition. In 1963, she became the first full-time black student to attend Elon. On April 4, 2019, she received an honorary doctorate from Elon at Spring Convocation.
“Elon has always been the Fighting Christians to me,” Hightower said. “They accomplish mountains, surpass everyone, but maintain the village that supports education and decency. So, I am completely honored to be recognized and offered such a prestigious award.”
Hightower said scholarships like hers that grant an advanced education to those who would not have access to it fling the door open. Her advice to black students at Elon currently came from the words of her community, advice she had been given long before her time at Elon: to get an education.
“Education prepares you to cope with obstacles, and this need to be separate is an obstacle,” Hightower said. “Don't be married to the obstacle. Don't be overwhelmed by the obstacle. Prevail, persist, honor and respect yourself. Live in dignity and integrity, and I promise you the outcome will be worth it.”
Hightower said her life at Elon was segregated. On campus, it was not appropriate for her to make eye contact or even brush by someone of a different color than her. But she was never tortured, abused or harassed.
“I was tolerated on this campus and acknowledged as a person, not a piece of chattel, was a good thing,” Hightower said.
Though Hightower did not graduate from Elon, her legacy marks an important time in its history.
“Many people have approached me today to say thank you for what you've done.” Hightower said. “Part of me is disappointed that I didn't graduate from here. Part of me says, 'I don't know how you can be so grateful.'"
"But at the same time, considering earlier, Fighting Christians prevail," Hightower said. "So while I was part of it, but not all of it, I think it's wonderful.”
While Hightower knows Elon has improved since her time here, she recognizes that Elon will never stop growing or advancing.
“This amazing day is going to honor me as the leader for this cause, for the cause of integration, for the cause of higher education, for the cause of socialization and encouragement to interact with each other regardless of what color we are, what faith we are, what motivation we have," Hightower said.
"I see that occurring on this campus, and it gives me great joy,” Hightower said.