After growing up in a segregated community called Lost Creek Settlement near Burnett, as the sixth of nine children, Vigo County native Cynthia Shepard Perry went on to accomplish her dream of becoming an ambassador.
On Monday, Indiana State University unveiled the street signage for the honorary naming of "Ambassador Cynthia Shepard Perry Way" on North Fifth Street.
Shepard Perry, 92 and living in Texas, was unable to attend in person. A video by ISU of the unveiling is being sent to her.
Donna Ross, the first born child of Shepard Perry, said the sign unveiling is a proud day for her family.
"One thing my mother said was you have to be committed to whatever it is you want to do and accomplish," said Donna Ross, who recently moved from Houston to Indianapolis. "She worked very hard and is very determined and committed. She made a lot of sacrifices to get where is today. Sometimes we don't appreciate the sacrifices our parents make to get to where they are, but looking back on it, I understand. I think it made me and her granddaughter very determined."
Donna's daughter, and Shepard Perry's first granddaughter, is Pamela R. Ross, a 1994 graduate of ISU with a bachelor's degree in speech-language-pathology.
"This is beyond words. Knowing her for all my life and knowing that she has had all these different accomplishments and what her career has been is special, but to step outside that and see what it means to the rest of the community and to the world is pretty phenomenal," Pamela Ross said.
Ross said she is the only grandchild who calls here grandmother "grandmere," which is French for grandmother.
"She would not let us call her grandma, therefore, grandmother was too distant for me, so we made a compromise and grandmere is French for grandmother," Pamela Ross said. "She has been an inspiration, guidance, someone who has challenged me ... a lot of love and just a phenomenal person."
Pamela Ross said the signage is special because "this is where her (Cynthia Shepard Perry) roots are, this is where she was raised, where she went to school, where she got her first education. This is where she had her first job, especially as a black woman on main street on Wabash (Avenue) with IBM. She has a lot of deep grounded starts here, so to be recognized at Indiana State and within Terre Haute, is a huge deal to her," she said of her grandmother.
Multiple generations of her family attended the honorary street naming, which covers a half-mile of Fifth Street from Tippecanoe Street to Cherry Street. It is owned by ISU as part of an agreement with the City of Terre Haute in 2011. Appropriate signage will mark the honorary naming, but street addresses will not be changed because of public safety.
"The story that my grandmother tells me about how she came into this path is because she loves humanity and always wanted to serve. One thing that was also important to her is she wanted to serve black people," Pamela Ross said, adding that her grandmother is also "a master gardener, a phenomenal artist and painter, a grandmother, a mother and a friend and she is definitely an important part of the community in this place we call humanity."
Indiana State University President Deborah J. Curtis said the signage "is intended to celebrate the tremendous impact she has had around the world. Dr. Cynthia Shepard Perry is undeniably one of the most prominent citizens to come from Terre Haute and one of Indiana State's most distinguished graduates. Imagine being appointed to represent the United States by three different U.S. presidents," Curtis said.
Shepard Perry grew up in the segregated community called the Lost Creek Settlement near Burnett. After graduating from the former Otter Creek High School in 1946, she married and started a family while also working in banking and for IBM, a computer hardware company. She later earned a scholarship to Indiana State University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in political science in 1968.
She went on to earn a doctorate in international education from the University of Massachusetts in 1972. As part of her doctoral program, she worked with former Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Africa to develop and test African Studies curricula for public schools to help improve race relations.
Shepard Perry was selected by three Republican U.S. Presidents to represent the nation internationally. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan appointed her as U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush appointed her as U.S. Ambassador to Burundi.
Reagan had previously appointed Perry in 1982 as chief of the Education and Human Resources Division in the Africa Bureau of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed her as U.S. Executive Director of the African Development Bank in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and later in Tunis, Tunisia. She held this position until her retirement in 2007, when she returned to Houston, Texas, where she still resides.
Shepard Perry had a distinguished career in education, consulting, and diplomacy. She held prominent positions at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the University of Nairobi in Kenya, Texas Southern University, and Texas Woman’s University.
She was recognized with ISU’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 1987, the same year she received the NAACP President’s Award. She also holds an honorary doctorate and a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Massachusetts.