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Photo: Dr. James E. Cheek, Sr. in 1965

Former Shaw University president immortalized in hometown

A Roanoke Rapids native who was president of two universities, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was Secretary of Education to the U.S. Virgin Islands will be immortalized locally in February.

The Roanoke Rapids City Council has unanimously voted for a resolution in honor of the late James E. Cheek Sr. Although voted on January 17, the Council agreed to hold the resolution at its first February meeting, coinciding with Black History Month.

To champion Cheek’s achievements and petition the City Council was Rodney D. Pierce, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at William R. Davie Middle School in Roanoke Rapids.

Cheek, born on December 4, 1932, attended John Armstrong Chaloner School when it served as the K-12 school for blacks during segregation. In his youth, he became a minister at the age of 13 before becoming licensed at 17. Although Cheek suffered from severe cataracts, Pierce said that didn’t stop him.

“Despite his optical setback, Cheek was an honors student at Dudley High School where he was also the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and captain of the debate team,” Pierce said. “After finishing his secondary education at Lutheran College High School, he served in the U.S. Air Force from 1950-51 during the Korean War and was honorably discharged.”

He obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in history and sociology from Shaw University in Raleigh.

He also received three fellowships while completing his Master of Divinity degree (with honors) from Colgate Rochester Divinity School and his doctorate from Drew University, Pierce added.

Cheek went on to eventually serve as president of Shaw and at Howard University in Washington.

“Cheek had an arduous task when he inherited Shaw, as the school was on the verge of bankruptcy, its student population was below 600 and its accreditation was in jeopardy. In his six-year tenure, he established remedial courses to help students graduate and implemented a $22 million “renaissance” program that rescued the school from financial insolvency,” Pierce said.

“Shaw’s annual budget went from $700,000 to $5.9 million and its assets increased from $2.6 million in 1963 to $10 million by 1969. Student enrollment doubled and faculty and staff received pay raises as teacher salaries went above the national average. There was also a student-operated FM-radio outlet with a TV station planned for the future.”

President Ronald Reagan was the one who presented Cheek with the Medal of Freedom. After President Bill Clinton took office, Cheek became Secretary of Education to the U.S. Virgin Islands and served in that capacity from 1995-97.

President George H.W. Bush had also offered Cheek a similar role.

“When the elder Bush became president, Cheek, his status was considered so high he was considered a candidate for Secretary of Education. He actually turned down President Bush in 1989 when he wanted him to become the new ambassador to the Republic of Cameroons in Africa,” Pierce said.

Pierce said he began work on the Cheek recognition in October 2015, when he reached out to Cheek’s son, James Cheek Jr.

“Dr. Cheek was quoted in an interview as saying, ‘In order to have influence, you have to have access.’ My hope is that the access you’ve granted me this evening will allow my words to influence you to adopt a resolution or proclamation recognizing the life of this exemplary man. Thank you,” Pierce said to the City Council.

This story originally appeared on on January 26, 2017. Reporting by Khai Hoang.