When the doors opened at the State Normal and Industrial School (now UNCG) on October 5, 1892, school president Charles Duncan McIver had 15 well-qualified faculty members and nearly 200 young female students. While cooks, janitors, handymen, and others worked behind the scenes to keep the school running, McIver felt that he needed a single individual to manage the facilities and the support staff on the growing campus. He called upon Ezekiel “Zeke” Robinson, a young African American man who had worked as a servant for McIver during his time teaching at Peace Institute in Raleigh. Robinson arrived mere weeks after the campus’s opening, and took up the duties of “General Factotum.”
In this role, Robinson managed the school’s large support staff – as many as forty-two individuals in the 1894-95 academic year. Nearly all of these workers were African Americans, and many (including Robinson) lived in a small segregated neighborhood several blocks west of campus. There, Robinson and his wife raised their four children – three boys. One son, named Charles Duncan McIver, died at a young age. The other two sons, Ed and Milton, moved to New York City where one became a prominent orchestra leader. Robinson’s only daughter Annie, named after McIver’s daughter, graduated from Bennett College in 1932 and became an educator in Greensboro.
In addition to supervision of other support staff, Robinson performed numerous tasks that were critical to the function of the school. He rang the school bell, assisted with campus landscaping, lit fires to keep offices and rooms warm, waited table at state dinners, and delivered the campus mail. He also served as a porter to the college presidents, seeing that they kept appointments and helping with their coats and umbrellas. In his role as the campus chauffeur, he drove the college presidents to meet visiting dignitaries such as Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, and Anna Howard Shaw. In the earliest days of the campus, he manned the college horse-and-buggy, providing students with their primary means of transportation into the city.
During his time at the school, he saw the transition from horses to automobiles, from oil lamps to electricity, from fireplaces to central heating, and from wells and pumps to running water. He served three college presidents (McIver, Julius Foust, and W.C. Jackson). He saw the acreage of campus increase tenfold, and saw the student body grow from 200 to over 2,200.
Ill health forced Robinson to retire in 1944 after a 52-year career, although he noted that he planned to “come to work on his good days, and that the college will have to get along as best it can when he can’t make the grade.” At his retirement, faculty and alumnae presented Robinson with a $300 gift to symbolize their “appreciation of his long and faithful service to the college.” He returned to campus numerous times after his official retirement, typically at the annual Founder’s Day celebration in October.
On December 1, 1960, Ezekiel Robinson died at a local nursing home at the age of 93. Robinson was the last surviving member of the faculty and staff from the first year of the State Normal. He was interred at Maplewood Cemetery near the North Carolina A&T campus.
By Erin Lawrimore