DAVIDSON Kaneisha Gaston’s ancestors helped build Davidson College as slaves.
On Sunday, she’ll walk across the stage there and receive her diploma. She’s the first African American from the town of Davidson to graduate from Davidson College, said school spokesman Bill Giduz.
“It’s taken us 176 years to get an African American from here to graduate,” said the Rev. Brenda Tapia, who was an assistant chaplain at the school for 20 years before retiring in 2005. Tapia was the school’s first black female chaplain. “So for us – for me, and I’m sure every black person here living and dead – Sunday is going to be a very important day.”
Gaston, 22, said she didn’t know the historical significance of her graduation until her great-grandmother, who lives in Davidson, did some research after Gaston was enrolled.
“When I first learned about what it meant, I didn’t know what to make of it,” she said. “To see that progression seems like an affirmation of a lot of different dreams of years past and part of a larger story of history.”
Her grandmother was a well-loved cook for many years at a Davidson fraternity, and Gaston still has several relatives who work at the college.
She said she spent her early years in Davidson and later grew up in Charlotte and attended North Mecklenburg High. But she and her family have always attended church every weekend in Davidson, and she spent many summers there with her great-grandmother.
“I saw a lot of opportunities, and why not take advantage of it?” she said of attending Davidson. “It’s about time we did.”
Being constantly surrounded by mostly white people at college was an adjustment for Gaston. “I’ve never had to answer questions about my hair before,” she said. Some students told her they’d never interacted with black people before meeting her. She recalled thinking, “This is crazy right now, and I’m just down the street from my house.”
But Gaston said she loved her time at Davidson – and she kept busy.
Gaston was a Bonner Community Service Scholarship recipient and interned for two summers with Freedom School Partners, a Charlotte nonprofit that provides summer programs for area children. She tutored children at an Ada Jenkins Center after-school enrichment program, helped develop an English language curriculum for students in Ghana and was a mentor for the STRIDE orientation program for minority students.
She was also a hall counselor for freshmen and served as president of the Black Student Coalition and Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Davidson Mayor John Woods said Gaston’s graduation will be a significant event for the entire community, and issued an official proclamation that Sunday is Kaneisha Gaston Day.
Gaston said she still can’t believe she’s going to have a day named after her in Davidson.
“Who has a day? I definitely don’t consider myself up there with people who have days and weeks named after them, but I’m honored,” she said. “I’m glad I can represent my family and my community.”
Gaston will be graduating with a 3.3 GPA and a degree in English with a concentration in ethnic studies. She’ll intern at Afara Global in Davidson this summer; the group helps connect U.S. businesses to African business development.
Then she’ll begin a teaching program through Teach Charlotte at a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school. She wants to teach high school English.
Gaston will graduate with 446 others Sunday morning. At 5 p.m., Tapia is holding a worship service at Davidson Presbyterian Church in celebration of Gaston’s graduation.
“She’s doing us so proud,” Tapia said. She’s also from Davidson but attended Howard University. “I’m honored to still be here to see change happening.”
Ruebens: 704-358-5294; On Twitter: @lruebens
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