Cleo HigginsCleo Mildred Surry was born August 25, 1923 in Memphis, Tennessee. She grew up and attended elementary and high school in Arkansas and Illinois. After graduating from DuSable High School in Chicago as the class Salutatorian in 1940, she went on to continue her education at LeMoyne College in Memphis, Tennessee on a four-year full-tuition scholarship. In 1944, she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English graduating with highest honors. During her senior year, Dr. Higgins was sent to Fressenden Academy (Martin, Florida) to be a social science instructor.

After earning her Ph. M. degree in English from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1945, she returned to Florida to become an English instructor at Bethune–Cookman College. She held the position of Chairman of the English Department from 1946-1948. In 1948, she became the Chairman of the Division of Humanities; she would go on to hold this position until 1956. At this time, Dr. Higgins chose to leave Bethune–Cookman College and move to Palatka, Florida where she remained for the next fourteen years. There she served as an instructor of reading at Central Academy High School (1958-1960), Dean of Student Personnel, registrar and instructor at Collier-Blocker Junior College (1960-1963) and an instructor of Humanities at St. Johns River Junior College (1964-1970).

In 1970, she returned to Bethune–Cookman College as the Acting Chairman of the Division of Humanities (1970-1973) and was later promoted to Chairman of the Division of Humanities (1973-1976). She also earned her Ph. D. degree in English from the University of Wisconsin in 1973. Along with this degree she was bestowed the title of “Scholar in English.” Dr. Higgins went on to be named Acting Academic Dean of Bethune–Cookman College (1976-1977) and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dean of the Faculty (1978-1986). Before retiring from fulltime work she served as Director of Alpha Chi Student Honors Program and the freshman GOALS program (1986-1988).

Dr. Higgins retired in 1988 after 43 years of educational endeavors; five university fellowships, four university scholarships, eight years of academic division leadership, and ten years of administrative leadership as Vice President for Academic Affairs/Dean of the Faculty at Bethune–Cookman College. Although retired, Dr. Higgins continued to teach part time and volunteer in Daytona Beach schools, local communities and churches, and penal institutions. In 1948 Dr. Higgins founded the Beta Iota chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Incorporated at Bethune – Cookman College instituting Greek life on campus. She was first introduced to Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Incorporated by her Aunt Veila J. Wiggins while studying at LeMoyne College in Memphis Tennessee. Dr. Higgins was a Sigma legacy who looked up to her aunt the sisterhood. Dr. Higgins is representative of a real Sigma Lady who has given all her life to the organization. Dr. Higgins realized while serving as first Grand Anti Basileus under then Grand Basileus Dr. Lorrain Williams that she would aspire to the highest position in the sorority. As first grand Anti Basileus, she initiated “summit” meetings that would grow into state and area conferences. Her focus and ability to intervene in disputes, and dedication to undergraduate growth in the sorority contributed to her unanimous election as Grand Baselius at the age of 38 in 1962. Her leadership style was described as emergent and inspirational. The following interview with Dr. Cleo Higgins was conducted on April 23, 2003.

Text Only Transcript Selections:

Community Meetings

“We had assembly, I guess every three times a week, whenever Mrs. Bethune came back to the campus from her travels, her in...comings in and goings out, when the word always got around Mrs. Bethune is back, and we knew that there would be an assembly. So, when she came in to...when she entered the lobby of Heyn Chapel we knew she was coming. Everybody...everybody stood up, and she promenaded down the aisle to see, and then she’d tell us about her travels, where she’s been, what she’s done, et cetera. Nobody said a word, there was no murmuring, there was no screeching, sighing - none of that. Mrs. Bethune was a no nonsense person. She just….There were no, what, acts put on in her presence. She just didn’t do it. Her’s was a...her personal dignity and her personal command of her...her life about her somehow let you know...let one know that you were in the presence were in the presence of greatness, really. Through the years, I...I think I’ve understood, at least this satisfies me, the...the secret of her...her command. Dignity...dignity was never relinquished. She...she gave everybody, whoever came into her presence, the feeling that - of course, I wasn’t always there, but I think people would agree with this - that you were somebody. She made one, certainly made me and I speak for myself, she made me feel more and more every time I saw her that I was...she believed in me, and I was...I was somebody, and I think she made everybody feel that way.”

President Richard V. Moore

“Then under President Moore who was really a leader and a go-getter, and he had the confidence that I could do what he wanted with his program. I worked hard under him, and he was always concerned, first of all, with the students and he was a father image for many, many people including me, students, faculty and everybody. For instance, he...he had a place out at Winona Park where I used to have plays, and he had a home, country cottage, and great groves, citrus groves. And every Christmas, and as well as the...particularly Christmas, I can’t remember what he did at Thanksgiving, but he just brought bushels and bushels of fruit, and these were arranged on the stage like you arrange Thanksgiving baskets now. But these were just...this fruit just came from his place to...for the faculty and students of Bethune-Cookman family. He was...he was a great leader. He headed the…the....Because of him I think people got together more easily in human relations groups.”

Urban Renewal

“I think urban renewal did more than any other group...developmental group to change Daytona...Not Daytona Beach, but Bethune-Cookman and its environs, geographical environs, than any other group.”


“ the ‘40s when the bikers came, and there were always…there were always bikers in Daytona, they came to the campus because that was...they didn’t participate in citywide activities as I recall, but I have pictures of bikers lined up. They’d line up in front of...all across in front of White Hall and they raced and had their stunts and everything, but they performed down what is now Lincoln Street.”


“We had here on the faculty, he came in 1949, a Dr. Thurman Stanback who was a playwright and the director of drama. He wrote plays, and we staged plays with casts of faculty members and students. One of those plays was the Jeffers version of Medea, a Greek tragedy, which we did in 1953, and we presented it here at Bethune-Cookman. I have pictures in there on the couch, and then we took it to Peabody Auditorium where we played to a full house there. The...that was before, of course, the Supreme Court decision of 1954. Our cast was an integrated cast.”

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