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Elizabeth City State University was established by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1891 in response to a bill calling for the creation of a two-year normal school for the "teaching and training [of] teachers of the colored race to teach in the common schools of North Carolina." This was to provide training for more teachers of primary grades.
In 1937, the school made the transformation into a full four-year teachers college and was officially named Elizabeth City State Teachers College, while expanding its role to include the training of principals as well. In 1939, the college awarded its first bachelor of science degrees in its program of elementary education. Within the following twenty-five years, the college expanded its offerings to include a vocational-technical program and a total of thirteen academic majors.
In December 1961, the college gained membership in the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. In 1963 its name was changed to Elizabeth City State College. In 1969, its name was changed to Elizabeth City State University to reflect expansion and the addition of graduate programs. When the University of North Carolina System was formed in 1972, ECSU became one of the system's sixteen constituent universities and entered into its current phase of development and organization.