Annually, March commemorates the contributions, study and celebration of women and their impact on society and role in American History. At Elizabeth City State University (ECSU), the importance and acknowledgment of women who played critical roles in the institution date back to the university’s founding in 1891 and continues to this day under the leadership of Dr. Karrie G. Dixon, ECSU’s 12th Chief Executive Officer and 7th Chancellor.

Beginning in the 1960s under the administration of Dr. Walter Nathaniel Ridley, ECSU started the tradition of recognizing the graduating senior with the highest academic honors with the distinction of Bearer of the Mace. The rule of awarding a graduating senior this elite honor continues to this day and is part of ECSU’s Commencement Exercises. Until 1972, however, when the U.S. Congress enacted Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, the honor was reserved for male students only, even if female students earned high honors, were recognized as valedictorians and graduated with a higher GPA than their male counterparts.

The passage of Title IX changed the criteria and qualifications and exclusions based on sex, outlining that “no person could be excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination on the basis of sex under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The university’s archive has noted that females would have earned and been awarded Bearer of the Mace if the then-policy was inclusive of both female and male students. While the exact number and identified names of these ECSU graduates are not determined, ECSU paid tribute to these unsung trailblazers during its 175th Commencement exercises in December 2022. The university celebrates their historic accomplishments.

Today, recipients of the Bearer of the Mace and Bearer of the Shield, an award given to the student who entered ECSU as a transfer student and has the highest cumulative GPA in the graduating class, lead each Commencement procession.

The mace was designed by retired ECSU art professor Alexis R. Joyner in 1996 and consists of three dynamic centers of significant components. The focal point is a replica of a Viking’s head, cast in bronze, with brass rays extending from the center depicting knowledge, enlightenment, wisdom and democracy; a bronze seal of the University adorns the reverse side. The mace’s wooden staff contains black walnut, a wood selected for its durability and dark, rich color. It is topped with a hand-turned polished brass finial and footed with a base replicating the ancient, time-defying pyramids.

While the specific qualifications have changed slightly over the past 63 years, the Bearer of the Mace distinction is presented to the student who entered ECSU as a first-time freshman and has the highest cumulative GPA in the graduating class for the prospective commencement exercise. Since 1972, numerous women graduates have received this high honor.