Building up

A conversation on race highlights how Black alumni can drive change

Linda and JoshuaThomas

Linda Thompson Thomas ’81 reengaged with ECU when her son Joshua Thomas ’16 was accepted. Since then she’s been heavily involved with many university organizations.

Linda Thompson Thomas ’81 and student Kamari Purvis are proud Pirates. Thomas was a student four decades ago, and Purvis is working his way toward a 2022 graduation. They share a tradition with nearly 200,000 ECU alumni and 15,000 living Black ECU alumni.

Recently, Purvis interviewed Thomas for a new “Pirate Voices” segment for ECU’s “Talk Like a Pirate” podcast. They discussed what it was and still can be like for a person of color on campus and the need for role models.

“There’s a lot of African American students who go to ECU and don’t have Pirate pride,” Purvis said. “And so, when you put on your alumni shirt, why are you proud to put that on – where’s that rooted?”

“It’s because I’m grateful for the transformational education and experiences that I got – and relationships – because I could not have gotten it in a different place at that time,” Thomas replied. “(It) laid the path, not only for me, but for others in my family as well.”

According to ECU’s Institutional Planning, Assessment and Research office, in the fall of 2020 4,710 Black or African American students were enrolled among the 28,798 total student body. But when Thomas arrived on campus in the late 1970s, she said there were only 1,200 African American students on campus out of a student body of about 12,000. She said she and her Black friends were close.

After Thomas graduated in 1981 with a degree in science education, she went back to her native Charlotte to work for Duke Power (now Duke Energy) and retired 34 years later. She is now a long-term high school substitute teacher for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teaching mainly STEM classes.

Other than occasionally coming back to ECU for homecoming, she wasn’t involved with her alma mater. But when her son, Joshua Thomas ’16, was accepted at ECU, she reengaged in a big way. She’s a former chair of the ECU Board of Visitors, she’s on the board of the ECU Alumni Association, she’s been named an “Incredible Woman” by the ECU Women’s Roundtable, and she’s active in recruiting efforts in the Charlotte area. One thing she takes pride in is revitalizing the Black Alumni Chapter of the ECU Alumni Association.

“I feel a sense of responsibility and obligation to give back to my alma mater, which gave me more. I’m standing on the shoulders of others … who were there before I got there,” Thomas said. “And I can’t just sit back and wait for things to happen and not help.

And just to see the sparkle in their eye and they say, ‘Well, I can do that.’ And I say, ‘You can do anything you want to.’
- Linda Thompson Thomas '81

“I want to be able to be a role model — an example for other Black students and help them to see that they deserve a college education and belong at ECU,” she added.

One way she does this is by inviting Black students to a homecoming tailgate some of her college friends have. She feels it’s important for students of color to see alumni who look like them.

“They go, ‘Wow, what do they do?’ Oh, well this one is a physician in Texas, this one is an occupational therapist, this one is an educator, this one is a principal, this one is a superintendent of a school system, this one is a retired executive with IBM,” Thomas said. “And just to see the sparkle in their eye and they say, ‘Well, I can do that.’ And I say, ‘You can do anything you want to.’”

Purvis is from Greensboro and has become active with different groups, perhaps most notably as president of the ECU chapter of the NAACP. Purvis said he appreciates how Thomas bridges the networking of students and alumni. He said those connections are strong at historically Black colleges and universities and something he would like to see a lot more of at ECU. He pledged to work toward that.

“It’s crazy to think that there are so many Black students who don’t realize there are Black alumni out there who are connected,” Purvis said.

Purvis gives non-Black people at ECU credit for putting their words of diversity into action. But in 2020, Thomas believes more needs to be done, especially when it comes to the number of leadership and faculty of color.

“I want to help fill that gap for others because the students we have coming through right now can go on and do much more than I’ve done in terms of academic achievement, and I want to be part of that solution — to help ECU grow and be all that it can be,” Thomas said.

Hear their entire discussion, including personal stories about diversity and aspiring to achieve, at