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Speeches and Writings

Designed, Defined and Destined for God’s Purpose

March 13, 2016: Women’s Day Speech Delivered at Abyssinian Baptist Church

Women's Day

Good morning and Happy Women’s Day.

Reverend Butts, thank you for inviting me to return to Abyssinian. Our family has deep ties to this church. My husband, Dr. George Campbell, is here this morning with me; and his mother was a member of Abyssinian when Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was pastor.

When our family first moved to Harlem, I used to attend church on Sundays with my then, youngest son, who, at the time was in middle school. After the service, we’d walk up the hill to Hamilton Heights and furiously debate the lessons from either Dr. Proctor or Dr. Butt’s sermons.  This morning, I’m grateful for the opportunity to thank Dr. Butts publicly for instigating such spirted dialogue between a mother and her teenage son. This same son, Sekou, was an Abyssinian usher as well.

Of course, Dr. George Campbell and Reverend Butts are connected because they entered into the brotherhood of college presidencies at the same time. George escaped. Dr. Butts is still hanging in there.

As the new president of Spelman College, I am especially pleased this morning to extend a special greeting to the First Lady of Abyssinian, Patricia Reed Butts, who is a graduate of Spelman College, class of 1973; and to her daughter, Patricia Jeanne Butts, class of 1999.

While I’m here, I can’t resist, if there are any Spelman sisters in the audience, please stand so your sister president can greet you this morning.

The topic for this women’s day celebration is “Designed, Defined and Destined for God’s Purpose, a topic close to my heart.  

I was given this topic and two selections of scripture, both from the book of Proverbs.  The first selection, chapter 3, verses 15-18, speaks to the value of wisdom. In those verses, wisdom which is more valuable than any commodity, is given the female gender. Wisdom is “she.”

15. She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.

16. Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honour.

17. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.

18. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her and happy is everyone that retaineth her.

The second selection, Proverbs 31:20-22 speaks to what it means to be a virtuous woman:

20. She stretchest out her hand to the poor; yea, she reaches forth her hand to the needy

21. She is not afraid of the snow for her household; for all her household are clothed with scarlet.

22. She maketh herself, coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple

Thinking about today’s topic and those verses, I am moved to think about a place that is a repository of wisdom and a training ground for the virtuous woman, and that place is Spelman College in particular, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities or what we call HBCUs, in general.

Spelman, as is the case with many HBCUs, created in the 19th century, was born out of the fervent belief that after decades of bondage, a newly free people required wisdom, and required education, more than anything else. For the newly freed, “She is more precious than rubies.”

In Atlanta, after freedom was won, a courageous man of the cloth, Reverend Frank Quarles, founded Friendship Baptist Church for the newly freed Black community. From the beginning, education was an essential part of his ministry. No sooner had he founded the church, shortly after the end of the Civil War, Friendship became the home to the school that would become Morehouse College.

Having made a place for the education of freed Black men, Reverend Quarles desperately wanted a school for freed Black women.  So, when two white teachers from Salem, Massachusetts, Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles, Baptist missionaries, showed up on his doorstep and told Reverend Quarles about their desire to start a school for recently freed Black women, Reverend Quarles’ prayers were answered.

“I was on my knees pleading with God to send teachers for the Baptist women and girls of Georgia.  We fully believe the Lord has sent you.”   

One hundred and thirty-five years ago, on the faith of a Black Baptist church and the will a pair White abolitionist teachers, the school that became Spelman College was built.  Black women flocked to this new school.  The school’s reputation grew quickly. The vision and promise of this school was powerful.

One Sunday at a church service in Cleveland, the two founders, Packard and Giles, were speaking with great pride about the new school for Black women in Atlanta.  In the congregation that morning was John D. Rockefeller, who was moved to contribute. Eventually, in honor of his many gifts, the school was named after his wife Laura Spelman Rockefeller’s family. In less than a decade, the Black women who graduated from this new school which started in a church basement, were leaders in their community. They were teachers and nurses; and, in some cases, traveling to the continent of Africa, they were missionaries.

There are many stories like Spelman’s that describe the origins of our HBCUs. They are stories of shared values and optimism in this country -- a time before Jim Crow laws cleaved an indivisible divide. Our HBCUs gave us a glimpse of what we could accomplish if North joined with South, Black with White, rich with poor, and men with women. 

 I see Dr. Deb Willis in the audience this morning.  As one of the world’s renowned photographic historians, she knows that you only have to see photographs of students of those colleges to see beautiful men and women who are self-possessed and filled with confidence. You see them and you see that, “She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her….”

If ever there were schools “Designed, Defined and Destined for God’s purpose,” it was the Black colleges and universities. Equality -- the promise, the ideal, God’s purpose for this country -- was the challenge Black colleges and universities took on with faith and belief and will and desire.

It’s not surprising that during the Civil Rights Movement, students from HBCUs were among the heroes of the movement. Students from HBCUs launched the lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960’s that swept through the south and involved over 70,000 courageous students in scores of colleges willing to sit at segregated counters and endure the taunts and physical abuse of white patrons who wanted to keep segregation forever.

When women and men from Spelman, Morehouse, Clark and Atlanta University, staged a sit-in at the segregated Rich’s Department Store in downtown Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr. joined them.  And when they all got arrested Dr. King penned a handwritten note from jail to the Spelman women. He wrote, “It is inspiring enough to see the fellows willingly accepting jail instead of bail, but when young ladies are willing to accept this type of self-suffering for the cause of freedom, it is both majestic and sublime.”

Today, our young Spelman women continue to speak out.  They speak out against sexual violence on college campuses; they speak out on behalf of the LBGTQ community; and they organize on behalf of the citizens of Flint.

I did not have the privilege of attending an HBCU. But, virtually my entire family was educated at Black colleges and universities.  Both my mother and father were. My father at Cheyney, the oldest Black college in the country, as well as my sister, brother, cousins and aunts.  My guess is that if we were to go around the church this morning, most people in this room either went, have or have had family members who attended HBCUs. Raise your hand.

Our debt to these colleges as a people is enormous.

When I entered college 50 years ago, a number of majority-serving colleges and universities were just integrating their campuses, and I was a part of the generation that participated in that integration.  In many ways, opening up educational opportunity beyond HBCUs has helped close the equality gap.

Today, there are Black CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, college presidents, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, scientists, astronauts, surgeons, and, of course, the President of the United States. But, ironically, in other ways, the equality gap is widening at an alarming rate.

  • The drop-out rate for Black males in some urban high schools is over 50%
  • The school to prison pipeline grows relentlessly for our young Black men
  • There are 1.5 million missing Black males in the 18-25 age bracket. They are missing due to prison or death
  • Shamefully, many of our highest performing high school students, who are also low income, don’t even apply to a four-year college
  • Nationally, when our students do make it to college, the average six-year college completion rate for African Americans is just under 40%. The national average is close to 60%

Sometimes, I think the challenges today are every bit as daunting as they were when the first 11 women showed up in the basement of Friendship Baptist Church looking for education.  “She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her….”

For the founders of our HBCUs, education was like a life in the ministry. It was a calling. They were called to the mission of creating a new people for a new world.  They not only prepared their students for that new world, they inspired them to imagine a way forward -- no matter how beleaguered their past may have been. All of this is as important now as it was then.

I worked in higher education for almost 25 years before I retired in 2014. I believe that while there is certainly a part of education that is about the acquisition of skills and competencies and expertise in a subject area, there is also a part of education that is about love.  There is a part of education that exacts and demand; and at the same time, deeply desires that the student sitting in front of you succeeds. There is a part of education that is about creating a climate for students to challenge and teach each other, to work collaboratively, to invent, to take risks, to make mistakes without penalty.  That part of education is unmeasurable by any standardized test.

Recently, Gallup completed a poll of 58,000 college graduates — Black and White students alike -- ten and twenty years after they had graduated.  What they found is Black people who had graduated from HBCUs reported greater satisfaction in their careers, and better emotional and social well-being in their lives, than graduates of colleges and universities in general.  They were the products of an education that came from a demand for excellence and for a love and desire for them to succeed.

A few months after I retired, Spelman College invited me to visit the campus. I vividly remember the experience of the taxi pulling up to the Spelman gate.  To pass through those gates is to pass into a different world.

First of all, to get inside the campus, you come around a massive stone wall; and when you get inside the gate, you enter a campus that is a gem. But it’s not just the physical beauty you notice. The moment you step on campus, you realize there is something very different about this campus.  Then it strikes you.  You are in a world unto itself.

You are in a world in which the Black woman occupies center stage.  You are in a world in which everyone in that world is rooting for the Black woman’s success; and everyone is demanding that she become the best version of herself.

If you speak to any student, you realize immediately that this is a place for the smart girls.

15. She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.

16. Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honour.

17. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.

18. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her and happy is everyone that retaineth her.

These words from Proverbs could have been carved over the gates of Spelman.

Speaking with the Spelman women, I could hear that they are ambitious, but not just for themselves, but rather for each other, for their communities, and for the world they are preparing to enter beyond the gates.

 When you talk to them, they convey their excitement about service, about working in homeless shelters, tutoring in local schools or visiting incarcerated women.  Service is as important to the young women as studying medicine or economics or computer science or history or English.

Being a virtuous woman is as important as being wise. The words, “She stetchest out her hand to the poor; yea, she reaches forth her hand to the needy,” live comfortably in the hearts of these women.

I wonder if Reverend Quarles and the two missionaries, Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles, imagined such a future for Spelman College. When they took in the laundresses and domestic workers who toiled in the homes of Atlanta, did they imagine the new Spelman woman?

Could they imagine that Spelman would graduate more Black women who completed a Ph.D. in STEM than any other college or university in the country?

Could they have imagined that even though half the women who attend the College are PELL grant eligible (proxy for poor), that the college has a six-year graduation rate of 76% — over 30% more than the national average for African Americans from any college.

 Would they ever have guessed . . .

  • That over 70% of our women study abroad
  • That undergraduates are frequently engaged in cutting-edge research because the Spelman faculty are working on research supported by close to $15 million in research grants

Surely they would have known about the Spelman sisterhood, our own version of the virtuous woman.  It is a set of relationships based on reaching out and caring for one another. It is forged on the campus and continues beyond the gates for the rest of a Spelman alumna’s lifetime.    

When I flew back to New York City, I was blown away, overwhelmed and then, a little annoyed.  Why don’t more people know about these successes?  Why didn’t I know? Why aren’t more philanthropists, politicians and policy makers championing their successes?  If “Black Lives Matter, why isn’t there a movement to make sure that these schools  that have done so much and are doing so much to shape Black Lives thrive for generations to come?

Soon after my visit to campus, Spelman called and invited me to consider the presidency.  At first, my response was easy.  I was retired. But, I had to stop and think -- what could be more valuable?  What could be more virtuous?  What could serve God’s purpose more? Retirement was liberating but this was inspirational.  So, like Jessie Jackson at the end of his bid for president, I had to admit, “God’s not finished with me yet.”

Next month, our Spelman community will formally inaugurate the College’s tenth president.  There will be a great deal of pomp and circumstance.  I have told my team that I want the focus to be on the College, on its design, its definition, its destiny, the strength of purpose of its students, the commitment of its faculty, staff, trustees and the love of its alumnae.  “Equality” is the theme of the inauguration.

I chose equality, because I believe equality in this country is a destination in search of a road map. Just listen to our current political discourse. Our country desperately needs a way forward. I believe places like Spelman College were designed, and defined, and destined to chart a way forward in search of that destination. I believe Spelman and our HBCUs -- like our Black churches -- have been among the institutions willing to lead us to imagine new worlds with the light of their will, their faith and their love for our people.

I am so honored to be here this morning to sing their praises and to give thanks to God for calling me to be a part of the necessary circle of faith that sustains all of us.