Pioneers for Future Generations

Dec 12th, 2012 | By | Category: Alumni Profile, Features

BY: Theresa Gawlas Medoff

To be on a campus these days is to witness a college more integrated than most in this country: nationally, 14 percent of college students are African American; Wesley’s minority population well exceeds that. That wasn’t always the case, as alumnae Gloria James ’73, the Reverend Charlotte Nichols ’73 and Peggi (Young) Watson ’73 well know. Back in the fall of 1971 when these three women arrived in Dover, they were among just 10 African Americans in their class. This was a time when the country was in turmoil—when civil rights, women’s rights and the Vietnam War were all at the forefront—and these pioneers were recruited by Wesley as it sought to integrate the campus more fully and to bring the benefits of a Methodist college education to a broader swath of the population.

Peggi (Young) Watson '73, the Reverend Charlotte Nichols '73 and Gloria James '73

James and Watson were freshman-year roommates, and James roomed with Nichols in their second year. All three women went on to achieve considerable academic and professional success since graduating from Wesley, and they have continued to deepen their relationship with God and the United Methodist Church. Wesley, they say, played an important part in their growth and development— intellectually, spiritually and socially.

They are grateful, as well, for the friendship they developed with each other while at Wesley, a friendship that continues to this day. “We have the kind of relationship where it doesn’t matter how frequently or infrequently we see each other, it’s like we were together just yesterday,” Nichols says. That friendship, she adds, was forged in part because they found support in each other while they navigated the challenges of being a minority at Wesley in the early ’70s.

It wasn’t always easy to be among the few black faces on campus in the early 1970s, the women admit. “There was a lot of curiosity about us among the other students, many of whom had had little previous exposure to African Americans,” Watson says, and partly because the school was so small, it felt at times like they lived under a microscope. “But we were open to discussions. Particularly with our friends we would have discussions about how we were the same and different,” she adds.

Watson calls herself a joiner. She sang in the Wesley choir and was active in planning student activities designed to unite the campus. She recalls two activities that were particularly successful in that respect, a talent show and an all-campus art creation party after which the student-painted canvases were donated to the College. “A lot of people participated in both of these events. They really promoted community because they were inclusive of everybody,” Watson says.

James, a self-described army brat who had lived throughout the south and Southwest, says that the blatant racism she experienced while growing up had persuaded her that she should go to a black college. When she was offered a scholarship by Wesley, however, her parents encouraged her to try the school. As a high school senior, she was skeptical. “My Maryland high school had been recently desegregated,” she recalls, “and I had people there I thought were my good friends. They acted like friends in class, but when they saw me at social events or on weekends, they would pretend they didn’t know me, and that hurt.”

The students at Wesley, she says, were different, and she socialized with blacks and whites alike inside and outside the classroom. “I loved Wesley,” James says. “People in general were friendly, and I liked the small, personalized environment.” The small environment, she adds, encouraged integration much more so than did the large, public university environment in which her sister found herself.

Nichols says her time at Wesley was a combination of the best of times and the worst of times, but that if she had to do it all over again, she would “absolutely 100 percent” choose Wesley. “I knew that Wesley was intentionally trying to become an inclusive college,” she says. “Attending Wesley was very much a part of my calling and my journey. I am still informed in the way I minister and how I value other people by certain things I learned and heard at Wesley,” she adds. She particularly credits then Chaplain Ed Wilkins with being a guide and mentor as she worked through her own religious growth and the challenges of being a minority at a time when the United States was grappling with equal rights and integration. She learned from Wilkins, she says, how leaders support those who are dealing with issues of racism and religious questioning, and she was able to draw on those lessons years later when she herself worked in campus ministry at another college.

All three women came from families that valued education, and their own drive to succeed led them to continue their education after earning their associate degrees at Wesley, which was then a two-year college. Each of the women continued on to earn a bachelor’s and multiple graduate degrees. Nichols received a bachelor’s degree from Salisbury University and both a master of religious education and a master of divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. Watson earned a B.A. from Boston University. She holds a master’s degree in education from Harvard University and attended graduate school in clinical psychology at Temple University. After graduating from Wellesley College, James earned a master’s from Salisbury State and a doctorate from the University of Delaware.

Though the three forged a strong friendship while at Wesley, Watson says, they all had very different personalities. “Gloria was more outspoken and outgoing, more willing to talk about cultural and philosophical issues,” she says. “I was more of a practical problem-solver.” Nichols was always heavily involved in church matters. But the differences were less important, Watson says, than what they shared: the same core values of honesty, family and hard work. “We all respected each other immensely—and still do,” she adds.

Their paths after Wesley have taken the women in separate directions, but all three entered careers that enable them to help others—Nichols as a United Methodist minister, James as a public health administrator, and Watson as a child psychologist.

Nichols has continued in her career to be a pioneer for women and blacks, making history in 1990 as the first African American woman appointed district superintendent in the U.S. United Methodist Church. The appointment also marked the first time a woman was appointed district superintendent in the Peninsula-Delaware Conference, which serves Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Nichols was appointed to a second term as district superintendent in 2005 and now also serves as dean of the cabinet with additional responsibilities on behalf of the Bishop.

Her work takes her on the road throughout the Eastern Shore to visit the 80 pastors and 130 churches under her purview. They include congregations both large and small, in cities like Salisbury and Ocean City as well as in the Eastern Shore’s many rural areas, including three churches on Smith Island accessible only by boat.

Nichols was prepared for the ministry in part, she says, by her own rich spiritual experiences at Wesley College, which included mandatory chapel, guest speakers and spiritual retreats and the wise counseling of the chaplain and administrators.

James says that the academic foundation she received at Wesley prepared her well for her future endeavors. “Wesley taught me good study skill habits. It also taught me that two trains of thought need to be developed—both academic and social— and my experience at Wesley did that very well,” she says. Her varied career has included being a disc jockey, a Head Start social worker and a health care administrator. Her current position as bureau chief for adolescent and reproductive health with the Delaware Division of Public Health calls upon all the varied knowledge and skills that she developed over the years. “Throughout my life I prayed to God for direction,” James says. “And the combination of my personality and the spirit intervening has led me to all these career avenues, and to where I am today.”

Her many responsibilities with the Division of Public Health include supervising the staff responsible for family planning services at 26 clinic sites and 28 schoolbased health centers throughout Delaware. She also works with physicians, nurse practitioners, social workers and health care systems throughout the state to ensure student service delivery. Among her most recent accomplishments was securing a federal grant for pregnancy prevention in Delaware through the national Personal Responsibility Education Program.

The third member of this Wesley trio found her vocation as a school psychologist—and particularly in the past two decades, as a short-term missionary in Africa for her church. In her nearly 20-year career in New Jersey schools she coordinated services for students in grades 1-12 in public and private schools. She worked with students with an array of challenges from physical disabilities to developmental delays to emotional disturbances. Although her health forced her to retire from a Camden County school district in 2007, she has continued her work into the present as a consultant in various educational settings in the Philadelphia area.

Watson also has felt called to missionary work, and she has been on short-term mission trips within the U.S. and throughout the world. Her heart, though, is with Africa, and she has been on mission trips to Ghana, Liberia, Togo, South Africa and, most frequently, to Kenya. Kenya was also the site of her longest mission trip—a school-year assignment to Nairobi where she served as both the first school counselor at St. Mary’s Education Centre Secondary School and as an educational consultant and teacher trainer for a private school serving children with special needs.

Being among the small group of African American students at Wesley in the early 1970s meant that sometimes Nichols, James and Watson needed to call upon the support and counsel of fellow students and administrators— and especially of each other. Reflecting back, the women say they are thankful for the lessons they learned while students at Wesley, and for the ways their academic and social experiences shaped them into the women they are today.

“My professors saw potential in me. They nourished me academically, and I flourished in that environment,” James says. “It’s like I was a plant and Wesley nourished me with sun and water. All these years later, the roots I developed at Wesley are still there and still strong.”

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