Kaloni Walton felt a sense of belonging after meeting with the American Indian Heritage Center at UNC Pembroke as a high school senior two years ago. It was this unique connection that impacted her decision to enroll.
Walton was among the guest speakers during the grand opening of The Curt and Catherine Locklear American Indian Heritage Center before an overflow crowd in front of the steps of Old Main on Tuesday.
Walton, now a sophomore, shared how the center has impacted her academic journey.
“UNCP has always played a big role in my life,” said Walton, who serves as an assistant in the center. “I was drawn to UNCP because of its support for Native students.
Established through federal grants in 2020, the center provides programming open to all faculty, staff and students to learn more about the rich culture of Native people across our region and state.
UNCP is only the second institution in the state to establish a center to support American Indian students.
The center was relocated to the second floor of Old Main, which underwent major renovations resulting in office space, a conference room, and a study room. The ceremony celebrated the lives of Curt and Catherine Locklear, who donated to have the center named in their honor. The Locklears are prominently known in the business community and whose ties to the university span eight decades.
“Today, we honor a couple who have given so much to this university and community,” said Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings.
“This newly renovated space will further the work and resources our heritage center can offer, and we are so grateful for the Locklear family and their generous contribution to make that possible,” Cummings said.
“It should remind us that we are here for a higher purpose—to serve our community just as Mr. Curt and Miss Cat have done for so long here in Pembroke. They continue to impact UNCP, ensuring students have a great opportunity to a successful life and career,” he said.
Curt Locklear founded Pembroke Hardware in the 1950s and transformed it into one of the largest True Value stores in the country. During that time, the Locklears have been loyal supporters of the university’s athletic and academic programs and performing arts.
A portrait of the couple was unveiled, and a ribbon cutting was held during the ceremony, which attracted local and state dignitaries, including state Rep. Charles Graham and Catawba Chief Bill Harris.
Curt Locklear Jr. was among several of Locklear’s nine children who spoke during the program.
“The center is nice,” Locklear Jr. said. “We are thankful to Chancellor Cummings, (First Lady) Rebecca, (Vice Chancellor) Steve Varley, the trustees and others who have contributed to make the dream and the vision of today a reality for many tomorrows to come.”
Dr. Ashley McMillan said the idea for the center was formed shortly after she was hired as the American Indian liaison to the chancellor in 2019. She encountered staff and faculty who stepped outside the boundaries of their job duties to support American Indian students.
“We have faculty and staff who sacrifice their time and talent because they want UNCP to be a place where American Indian students don’t have to choose between earning a degree and maintaining ties to their culture,” McMillan said.
“Today, we celebrate the fact that the creation of this center will continue to transform lives not only locally but across the state and in the communities of the 30 tribal nations represented among our student body,” she continued.
Kerry Bird, inaugural director of the North Carolina American Indian Heritage Commission, remarked that such a gathering place on campus “wasn’t even a possibility” when he was a student at UNCP in 1980.
“Now it is a place you can call your own,” Bird said. “The center is a great place to learn more about the outstanding American Indian leaders who have given so much to make this place a reality.”