DAVIDSON – May 19 was a huge day for hundreds of Davidson College students who received their diploma at graduation, but Kaneisha Gaston stands out above the rest.
She made history at the college by receiving her diploma as the first African-American student with family ties to the town of Davidson.
Mayor John Woods, in honor of this historic moment, declared May 19 Kaneisha Gaston Day in Davidson.
Gaston grew up in Charlotte, but spent many of her childhood days with family in Davidson.
Several of her family members also worked on the college’s campus, including her grandmother, who was a cook at a fraternity house.
Gaston, a North Mecklenburg High School alum, said that when it came time for her to start looking at colleges to attend, Davidson wasn’t really on the radar.
“This side of town and the college being here is a symbol for a certain type of lifestyle here in Davidson that isn’t the same for everyone,” Gaston said. “So people just might not desire it and that is fine, but its unfortunate that people lose out on opportunity because experience tells them they shouldn’t pursue that.”
Gaston said that growing up black and southern in a segregated town, she remembered being told to not go to Main Street, “not because I was afraid, but I remember them saying, don’t go past the railroad tracks; just don’t do it. If you do, go straight to where you need to and come right back.”
She didn’t let that segregated mindset keep her from making the best decision for her education.
“I wasn’t trying to prove my family wrong, but it was a sense of curiosity, like, what is this place?” Gaston said. “No one ever said outright to not go there or you won't get in. The message was always you can do anything you want to do or be anything you want to be as long as you work hard and keep a level head, you can go places. Saying you can go places, never immediately translated into considering Davidson.”
She applied for early decision admission to Davidson and was accepted.
Four years later, Gaston has proven to be a major asset to the campus.
She held a Bonner Community Service Scholarship that involved tutoring local children in an Ada Jenkins Center after-school enrichment program.
In addition, she was a mentor for the STRIDE orientation program for students of color, served as a hall counselor for first-year students and was president of both the Black Student Coalition and Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Gaston graduated as an English major with an academic concentration in ethnic studies.
She was a volunteer teaching assistant in Charlotte schools through the New Teacher’s Project, and looks forward to becoming a high school English teacher.
Gaston worked for two recent summers as an instructor with the Freedom Schools program.
“For me, its nice to see generationally, things are changing in my family and being part of that is an honor,” Gaston said. “Even if I didn’t intend to be a history maker. Just having the knowledge that I am a part of something larger than just 'Kaneisha went to college and it happened to be Davidson.'”
The idea for Kaneisha Gaston Day originated with Davidson native Rev. Brenda Tapia, who grew up in town with Gaston’s relatives.
“The town still has a lot of racial divides, but we’re working on closing them.” Rev. Tapia said. “Acknowledging occasions such as Kaneisha’s graduation can help bring the black and the white communities of Davidson together. Kaneisha has done a great job. And though she may be the first black community native to graduate from Davidson, I’m sure she won’t be the last. She’s helping the town take a big step in the right direction.”