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A Hallowed Place Honors an NC State Icon

A colorized photo of a young adult Mary Yarbrough is held up in front of a swath of greenery, brick pathways and a fountain at Yarbrough Court.

“It is often said that gratitude is the heart’s memory; if this be true, then our hearts are filled with memories of you.”

These words, spoken to Mary Elizabeth Yarbrough at a ceremony soon after her retirement from the faculty of Meredith College in 1972, captured the feelings of many who knew her in life. Decades later, our Wolfpack community still owes a debt of gratitude to this bold trendsetter.

A Trailblazing Life

Born in 1904 to Louis T. Yarbrough, a member of NC State’s first graduating class, and Lula Ellis Yarbrough — granddaughter of Andrew Jackson Ellis, a local landowner known widely among the university’s early community — Yarbrough grew up within sight of the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, now NC State.

From her family’s home on Hillsborough Street, where early students of the college broke bread, a young Yarbrough explored our campus, struck up friendships with faculty and even sat in on courses during her summer breaks. After graduating high school from Saint Mary’s School near downtown Raleigh, however, Yarbrough was barred from attending the university she’d grown up alongside due to NC State’s rules against admitting female students.

Instead, Yarbrough took her ambitions to nearby Meredith College. There, her hard work and resolve to push through any obstacle enabled her to complete dual degrees in chemistry and mathematics in 1926.

Written for Mary Yarbrough on May 23, 1910, on the occasion of her sixth birthday.

May is the month of beautiful flowers,

And of sweet little gray-eyed girls;

Rose-bud mouths that were made to kiss,

You’ve seen them with teeth like pearls.

You’ve also seen the mischievous look,

As the eyes are demurely cast down —

Rough and ready for play, always merry and gay,

But with sympathy sure to be found.

Right now I am thinking of one little girl,

Outside the fair city of Raleigh;

Upon Hillsboro Street, this miss you may meet;

Greet her thusly, “Good morning, Miss Mollie!”

(However her real name is Mary)

But Yarbrough didn’t let society’s strictures stop her there. While at Meredith, she’d been permitted to take several courses at NC State as a “Special Student.” Seeing an opening, Yarbrough applied for a graduate program in chemistry just as NC State’s Faculty Council was finalizing a decision to allow women into specific programs. She got in, and in 1927, she earned her master’s in chemistry, becoming the first woman to attain a graduate degree from NC State.

In 1929, Yarbrough returned to Meredith — this time as a member of the faculty — where she’d spend her career leading the Department of Chemistry and Physics, helping to manage the cooperative education program and imparting her daring sense of unconventionality to the pupils whose minds she helped shape. In the midst of it all, she also made a stop at Duke University, where she added a doctorate to her list of achievements in 1941.

A Place In Wolfpack Hearts

Long after she left our campus, Yarbrough’s influence continued to be felt at NC State. In 1930, three years after earning her master’s degree, she became the Alumni Association’s first female officer. In that role and through other outlets of change, she helped usher in new opportunities for women. By the 1960s, thanks to Yarbrough and other early catalysts of female empowerment at NC State, a substantial number of women were finally earning degrees from the university.

After Yarbrough’s death in 1984, Doris King — a professor in NC State’s history department, and a longtime friend of Yarbrough — secured a commitment from university leaders to honor Yarbrough’s memory by naming a piece of the campus after her. Three years later, during the university’s centennial celebrations, King and Chancellor Bruce Poulton led a ceremony to dedicate the new space: Mary Yarbrough Court.

Spring blooms highlight the Mary E. Yarbrough Courtyard.
A fountain erupts with water in the foreground at Mary Yarbrough Court, with trees and greenery in the background.
Spring flowers start to bloom in the Mary Yarbrough court near Peele Hall.

Today, Yarbrough Court, as it’s most often known, offers our campus community a quiet space filled with beautifully manicured greenery that reflects its namesake’s lifelong love of a well-tended garden. Whether you know it or not, you’ve likely visited the spot at least a time or two; it’s tucked just behind Holladay Hall on North Campus, within view of the Memorial Belltower.

Stop by sometime to soak in the quietude and reflect on the life of a woman who refused to let the limits of her time define the limits of herself.

This post was originally published in NC State News.