Author Tayari Jones has won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her fourth book, An American Marriage (Algonquin Books, 2018). The prize, considered one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, honors the year’s best novel written in English by a woman of any nationality across the globe. An American Marriage tells the story of Celestial and Roy, two Black newlyweds whose lives are violently interrupted when Roy is imprisoned for a rape he did not commit.
Jones is currently a professor of English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, is a graduate of Spelman College, and holds master’s degrees from the University of Iowa and Arizona State University.
Spelman College, the historically Black educational institution for women in Atlanta, has received a $30 million donation from trustee Ronda Stryker and her husband William Johnston, The gift is the largest from a living donor in the 137-year history of the college.
The gift will be used to help fund the construction of the Center for Innovation and the Arts on the Spelman campus. When completed the building will house all of the college’s arts programs – art, art history, curatorial studies, dance, digital media, documentary filmmaking, photography, music and theater – in a single building.
Stryker has been a member of the college’s board of trustees for more than 20 years. She currently serves as vice chair.
In making the donation, Stryker stated: “As former educators who believe strongly in social justice, Bill and I have great appreciation for how Spelman provides a superior education for students that encourages them to be global change agents. Spelman alumnae are leaders across every field imaginable, breaking new ground, while tackling some of the world’s most challenging issues from health disparities to the digital divide. We are thrilled to support a building that will encourage students to master technology, innovation and the arts.”
Stryker is a board member at Stryker Corporation, a medical equipment company and vice chair of Greenleaf Trust, an investment banking firm.
The jurors were looking at her when they filed into court. That, Dovey Johnson Roundtree knew, could have immense significance for her client, a feebleminded day laborer accused of one of the most sensational murders of the mid-20th century.
Little had augured well for that client, Raymond Crump Jr., during his eight-day trial in United States District Court in Washington: Mr. Crump, who had been found near the crime scene, was black and poor. The victim was white, glamorous and supremely well connected. The country, in the summer of 1965, seethed with racial tension amid the surging civil rights movement.
Federal prosecutors had amassed a welter of circumstantial evidence — including 27 witnesses and more than 50 exhibits — to argue that on Oct. 12, 1964, Mr. Crump had carried out the execution-style shooting of Mary Pinchot Meyer, a Washington socialite said to have been a former lover of President John F. Kennedy.
By contrast, Ms. Roundtree, who died on Monday at 104, had chosen to present just three witnesses and a single exhibit to the jury, which comprised men and women, blacks and whites. Her closing argument was only 20 minutes long.
Now, on July 30, 1965, the jury, having deliberated, was back. The court clerk handed the verdict slip to the judge, Howard F. Corcoran. For most observers, inside the courtroom and out, conviction — and an accompanying death sentence — was a foregone conclusion.
“Members of the jury,” Judge Corcoran said. “We have your verdict, which states that you find the defendant, Ray Crump Jr., not guilty.”
Ms. Roundtree’s defense, which hinged partly on two forensic masterstrokes, made her reputation as a litigator of acuity, concision and steel who could win even the most hopeless trials. And this in a case for which she had received a fee of one dollar.
“As a woman, and as a woman of color in an age when black lawyers had to leave the courthouse to use the bathrooms, she dared to practice before the bar of justice and was unflinching,” Katie McCabe, the co-author of Ms. Roundtree’s memoir, “Justice Older Than the Law,” said in an interview for this obituary in 2016. “She was a one-woman Legal Aid Society before people used that term.”
Officer, Lawyer, Minister
Ms. Roundtree’s victory in the Crump case was not her first noteworthy accomplishment, and it was by no means her last. Born to a family of slender means in the Jim Crow South, Ms. Roundtree — or the Rev. Dovey Johnson Roundtree, as she was long formally known — was instrumental in winning a spate of advances for blacks and women in midcentury America, blazing trails in the military, the legal profession and the ministry.
As an inaugural member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Women’s Army Corps), she became, in 1942, one of the first women of any race to be commissioned an Army officer. Attaining the rank of captain, she personally recruited scores of African-American women for wartime Army service.
As a Washington lawyer, she helped secure a landmark ban on racial segregation in interstate bus travel in a case that originated in 1952 — three years before Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat in Montgomery, Ala.
As a cleric, Ms. Roundtree was one of the first women to be ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 2009, in a statement honoring the publication of “Justice Older Than the Law,” the first lady, Michelle Obama, said, “As an Army veteran, lawyer and minister, Ms. Roundtree set a new path for the many women who have followed her and proved once again that the vision and perseverance of a single individual can help to turn the tides of history.”
Yet for all her perseverance, and all her prowess, Ms. Roundtree remained, by temperament, choice and political circumstance, comparatively unknown.
“One has to start with the fact — and I think it’s an acknowledged fact — that the civil rights movement was notoriously sexist,” Ms. McCabe said in 2016. “There were many men who did not appreciate being ground up into hamburger meat by Dovey Roundtree. There are many, many white lawyers — male — in Washington who were humiliated by having been beaten by a black woman. And I think that played out in a number of ways. And one of those ways has been a diminution in the recognition that I think her accomplishments merit.”
It’s National Library Week, and at Spelman College a student is changing lives by improving a community’s literacy. Deanna Hayden, a junior Comparative Women’s Studies major, volunteers in an impoverished neighborhood in Atlanta, the West End community.
“I grew up in rural Mississippi,” Hayden said, “where there was an overwhelming lack of educational resources. When I started volunteering at Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary School in the West End, I noticed parallels between the education system here and in Mississippi.”
BOOKS TRUMP POVERTY
Hayden relayed there are students with low reading scores, ironically in a school named after a literary giant. “I sat in on third-grade classes and could see that there is a need to improve their literacy,” she says.
Hayden had noticed that in wealthy communities there are what she calls “free libraries”—not library buildings from which books can be borrowed, but small, house-shaped structures full of books that can be taken for keeps, or added to. (Hayden was most likely referring to the Little Free Library book exchange.)
Regular reading is critical to raising literacy and reading levels, but book ownership also makes a huge difference. According to a 2014 study cited in a New York Times article, the number of books in a home is “the most important predictor of reading performance” after gross national product. “The greatest effect was seen in libraries of about 100 books, which resulted in approximately 1.5 extra years of grade-level reading performance.”
Astonishingly, a home library appears to matter more than the family budget. The Times article goes on: “… in the United States, with the size of libraries being equal, students coming from the top 10% of wealthiest families performed at just one extra grade level over students from the poorest 10%.”
THE HOUSE OF KNOWLEDGE
Similar to both the Little Free Library and Barbershop Shops, which sets up books targeting black boys from age 4 to 8 in barbershops, the House of Knowledge is a literacy initiative that Hayden developed in response to the struggling readers she encountered.
There are now seven Houses of Knowledge throughout the West End community “in places frequented by children, such as churches, recreation centers, and doctor’s offices,” Hayden told me. Each holds 25 books targeting readers in kindergarten to eighth grade.
“Each House of Knowledge has its own theme,” Hayden says. “Some offer books on science and technology—others are all about black women.” Each box has a sponsor which is responsible for monitoring the box to make sure there is always a selection of books inside. The sponsor—organizations like the NAACP, the National Council of Negro Women, and others on the Spelman campus—determines what books will be offered.
Hayden, who graduates next year and plans to study public health and educational policy in graduate school, still has plans for the House of Knowledge project. “I’d like the kids to do surveys and quizzes on the books,” she says. “Eventually I’d like to develop an after school component as well.”
In the meantime, she’s also hoping for a grant that will make the program more sustainable.
To learn more, visit the House of Knowledge website.
Spelman College, an all girls HBCU, announced this week a new scholarship program for students of the school who advocate for LGBTQ issues. The Levi Watkins Jr. Scholars Program “will call attention to the importance of making visible the courageous and significant work of LGBTQ scholar activists within and beyond the academy, especially at HBCUs,” Spelman professor and alumna Beverly Guy-Sheftall said.
Guy-Sheftall is also the founder of the Spelman Women’s Research and Resource Center. The scholarship is named after Dr. Lee Watkins, who is Sheftall’s cousin and a founding member of the Women’s Research and Resource Center’s National Advisory Board. Guy-Sheftall pledged $100,000 in May and launched the scholars program and lecture series to explore contemporary issues of race, gender and sexuality.
According to The Root, two Spelman sophomores who self-identify as LGBTQ advocates will be awarded renewable $25,000 scholarships this fall. “As an institution that upholds a supportive student experience, this gift will present new opportunities for critical conversation on race and sexuality with distinguished scholars and thought leaders, and provide a platform to recognize campus LGBTQ advocates and their scholarly achievements,” Spelman President Mary Schmidt Campbell said after the scholarship program was announced.
Leonard Riggio, the founder and chairman of Barnes & Noble and his wife, Louise, are donating $1 million to Spelman College. The donation was made to establish the Riggio Scholars Program and to support Spelman’s arts and innovation center.
Half of the donation will go towards underwriting six Spelman students who have gone above and beyond to demonstrate outstanding academic achievement and who engage in community service.
The other half will help design and build an arts and innovation center. This center will house both the school’s arts programs as well as fund their Innovation Lab.
“From the moment I was surrounded by its warm embrace, I was head over heels in love with Spelman College, and especially with the beautiful people who study and teach there,” Leonard Riggio stated.
Donna Brazile, an academic, author, syndicated columnist, television political commentator, and political strategist, has been named Commencement speaker for the Spelman College Class of 2015. Brazile, who will receive an honorary degree, will address more than 475 graduates on Sunday, May 17, 2015, at 3 p.m. at the Georgia International Convention Center.
“Donna Brazile has been a trailblazer in the political arena and a staunch advocate for human and civil rights,” said President Beverly Daniel Tatum. “We are pleased she will have an opportunity to impart words of wisdom to Spelman graduates as they begin the next phase of life’s journey, and join the ranks of Spelman alumnae who have made a choice to change the world.”
With a lifelong passion for political progress, Brazile had worked with a candidate every presidential campaign from 1976 through 2000, when she became the first African American to manage a presidential campaign. Today, Brazile is founder and managing director of Brazile & Associates LLC, a general consulting, grassroots advocacy, and training firm based in Washington, D.C. She is also the vice chair of voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee and former interim national chair of the political organization.
Last year may have been the year of the historically black hack-a-thon. Several of the nations’ most prominent black colleges welcomed students of varying majors and interests to a whirlwind experience of innovation, entrepreneurial spirit and networking. Almost makes you wish there was an app for that, but that’s HBCU Hack-a-thons are all about; taking individuals with little-to-no tech or coding experience and pairing their creativity with tech savvy developers and marketers to make a new generation of black entrepreneurs in emerging tech markets.
Morehouse, Spelman, Clark Atlanta, Howard and Morgan State participated in the 2013 HBCU Hack-a-thon experience. Students compete for prizes, exposure, and for some, their first visions of owning their own company in a field in which they never imagined working.
“It sparks students from across all kinds of disciplines to come together to develop an idea that can be brought to the marketplace,” says Omar Muhammad, Director of the Entrepreneurial Development and Assistance Center of the Earl G. Graves School of Business and Management at Morgan State University. “They get hands on experience with working groups, and understanding what it means to start a business. The individuals who come in as entrepreneurs really help the students to learn how to move their businesses forward.”
Muhammad says the nature of hack-a-thons inspires collaboration, and melds ideas from different backgrounds, industries and social constructs to bring out the essence of innovation. The movement was started by the Black Founders, a group of working black tech professionals who wanted to spur more African-American ownership in tech industries. One of the Founders and University of Maryland Eastern Shore alumna, Hadiyah Mujhid, told Black Enterprise Magazine in 2013 about the importance of the hack-a-thon effort on HBCU campuses.
Spelman President Beverly Daniel Tatum was announced Monday as one of four recipients of the 2013 Academic Leadership Award, from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The honor makes Tatum the first ever HBCU president and first president in the state of Georgia to earn the prize. Carnegie said each winner is an exceptional president of a U.S. college or university, and that the award is in the form of a $500,000 grant to be used in support of each honoree’s academic initiatives.
The other 2013 honorees are Richard H. Brodhead, President, Duke University; Michael M. Crow, President, Arizona State University; and John L. Hennessy, President, Stanford University.
The award honors university presidents who are not only resourceful administrators and managers, but also have a keen interest in the liberal arts and a commitment to excellence and access, curricular innovation, reform of K-12 education, international engagement, and the promotion of strong links between their institutions and their local communities, Carnegie said.