[ skip to content ]

More Information about this image

Explore 120,000 square-feet of signature architecture inside the new education building.

Black History Month Is Every Month

February was Black History Month. On the morning news a few weeks ago, newscasters asked members of Congress to name their favorite person in African American history. It seemed this would be a great question to pose to our faculty and administrators at ODU. At the Center for Faculty Development and the Office of Faculty Diversity & Retention, we wanted to run this article in March to emphasize that every month is Black History Month. The responses of our colleagues are below. David Simpson, the CFD's technical writer, did much of the work to craft the short biographies. — Annette Finley-Croswhite, CFD director, Narketta Sparkman-Key, OFDR director

Harry T. Burleigh, William L. Dawson, Hall Johnson, Jester Hairston and John Wesley Work III
Selected by Nancy Klein, professor and chair, F. Ludwig Diehn School of Music

Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), William L. Dawson (1899-1990), Hall Johnson (1888-1970), Jester Hairston (1901-2000) and John Wesley Work III (1901-1967) collected and transcribed many African American spirituals that had been passed down through oral tradition for generations. All of the men were composers; some were also educators, arrangers, musicologists, choral directors, or performers. Each helped transport a tradition born out of slavery onto the concert stage. "Were it not for these men, we would have lost this important and powerful element of American culture," Klein says.

Lee Clay
Selected by Alonzo Brandon, vice president for university advancement

Lee Clay (1854-1940) was Alonzo Brandon's second great-grandfather. Born into slavery, Clay became a prosperous farmer in Person County, N.C., in the early 20th century. "He learned to monetize his skills as a master farmer," Brandon says. "In fact, many white farmers would either sell or exchange large plots of farmland for his consultation." Clay married Ellen Brooks in 1877, and they had 11 children. He began acquiring farmland in 1899 and eventually owned or co-owned thousands of acres. And while he may have lacked formal education, he knew its value, petitioning the Person County Board of Education numerous times to fund a school for Black children. Finally, in the 1920s, he was permitted to contribute a third of the cost to create a school under an arrangement with the county and the Rosenwald Schools Fund, a philanthropic endeavor. In the '20s and '30s, Clay helped fund five more Rosenwald Schools.

Former U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.)
Selected by Lesa C. Clark, executive director, Office of Intercultural Relations; SEES diversity liaison

A son of sharecroppers, Elijah Cummings (1951-2019) earned a law degree and rose through the ranks of Maryland politics to become a Democratic member of the House of Representatives and the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. He was a vigorous advocate for civil rights throughout his career. Before he died, he had been chairing one of the committees leading an impeachment inquiry of President Trump. For Lesa Clark, the lawmaker's presence would continue to loom over the proceedings as Trump was impeached, and acquitted, for the second time. "As I watched the impeachment hearings, I still heard the thunderous and passionate voice of Elijah Cummings. His words, 'We are better than this,' were his mandate for members of the House and Senate, and for America, even during his last days on earth."

W.E.B. Du Bois
Selected by Andy Casiello, associate vice president for distance learning

The writer and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) worked to gain equal treatment for African Americans and refute the concept of racial inferiority. Born in Great Barrington, Mass., he became the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, after which he taught economics and history at Atlanta University. In 1909 he co-founded what would become the NAACP, for which he worked as editor of its influential magazine, The Crisis. His many books include "The Souls of Black Folk" and an autobiography. "I grew up in western Massachusetts," Casiello says, "and have often stopped in Great Barrington to express my gratitude. His towering presence in civil rights activities, his earning a Ph.D., his brilliance, his work with the NAACP, and so many other accomplishments make him a giant in my mind."

Sarah Jane Woodson Early
Selected by Narketta Sparkman-Key, associate professor of human services and Academic Affairs director of the Office of Faculty Diversity and Retention

Sarah Jane Woodson Early (1825-1907) was born to parents who had been emancipated from slavery in Virginia and moved to Ohio, where they became successful farmers and leaders in the newly founded American Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. As a child, Early was an avid reader and was said to have memorized large sections of the Bible. This intellectual prowess led her to become the first African American woman to graduate from college when she earned her bachelor's degree from Oberlin College in 1856. From there she became the first Black woman to hold a university position when Wilberforce University, the first private historically Black college or university (HBCU) in the nation, hired her to teach Latin and English. Early had many careers in her lifetime, always working to improve the lives of African Americans. She was also a school principal, writer, mentor and feminist. She married John Winston Early, a minister in the AME Church, in 1868 and took on the role of preacher's wife, offering a strong female voice alongside his in their ministerial duties. She influenced countless people in her role as educator of both children and adults. Sparkman-Key notes, "I think about her fight and her determination. I know it was hard for her being a Black female professor in a male-dominated profession, but she accomplished her goal. Her story was my reminder to fight towards tenure when it seemed hopeless."

Eugene Goodman
Selected by Thomas Chapman, associate professor of geography

Officer Eugene Goodman (c.1980-) of the U.S. Capitol Police has been praised as a hero for his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob stormed the building while lawmakers were counting Electoral College ballots related to the 2020 presidential election. A video shows him confronting the protesters but backing away, luring them from an entrance to the Senate chamber and meanwhile radioing for backup. "He singlehandedly faced down a violent mob (many of whom are white supremacists) and, by doing so, saved many lives, including members of Congress and the vice president," Chapman says. "To me he is a superhero and the bravest American I have ever seen."

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Selected by Michael Clemons, professor and interim chair, Department of Political Science & Geography

A Baptist minister and a stirring orator, Dr. Martin Luther King (1929-1968) pushed America to ensure equal rights for all. He came to wide notice in the 1950s for advocating passive resistance to segregation and leading a boycott of segregated bus lines in Montgomery, Ala. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he co-founded, served as a base for civil rights demonstrations, including the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 voter registration drive in Selma, Ala. His nonviolent efforts in the face of threats earned him the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. He was assassinated in 1968. Clemons comments: "He was only 26 years old when he went to Montgomery to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association and the bus boycott, and he was assassinated at the age of 39. All that he accomplished for the United States and the world in the span of about 13 years is totally amazing."

Former U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.)
Selected by Barbara Hargrave, professor, Frank Reidy Research Center for Bioelectrics, Department of Biological Sciences

While a seminary student, Alabama native John Lewis (1940-2020) organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville. He joined the Freedom Rides of 1961, enduring beatings and arrests. In 1963 he became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped plan the March on Washington. To bring attention to barriers to voting in the South, he helped organize a protest march in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. But after marchers crossed Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were brutally attacked by state troopers, Lewis suffering a fractured skull. In coming days he and others would march twice more, and within five months the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was introduced, passed and signed into law. Hargrave remains awed by Lewis's bravery and determination. "When I saw the TV footage of 'Bloody Sunday' and the vicious attacks of the dogs and the policemen, I wondered where that kind of courage came from and asked myself if I would have had the courage to go back as they did," she says. "The answer is I honestly don't know."

Toni Morrison
Selected by Tomeka Wilcher, educational program developer, Center for Faculty Development

Novelist Toni Morrison (1931-2019) wrote about African American life in such acclaimed works as "Beloved" and "Song of Solomon." Tapping the power of oral tradition, her books mingled reality with myth, magic and superstition while exploring the weight of history on her characters. Along the way, Morrison won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Prize for Literature. "Toni Morrison used her voice, language, and platform to beautifully humanize the experiences and journeys of the Black woman, the Black man, and the Black family," Wilcher says.

William Cooper Nell
Selected by Samuel L. Brown, professor and chair, School of Public Service

William Cooper Nell (1816-1874) is known primarily as an abolitionist and a historian who wrote works that explored the history of African American patriots during the American Revolution. But he is also considered the first African American public administrator, having joined the U.S. Civil Service in 1861 as a postal clerk in Boston. Brown points out that African American postal workers played an important part in the U.S. labor and Black freedom movements. "For the past 160 years, African American postal workers fought for civil rights unionism at the post office using a variety of traditions and protests," he says. "Post office employment for African Americans played a critical role in shaping the Black middle class of the 20th century. Black activists in the Postal Service were instrumental in helping the U.S. move closer to its founding principle of equality." William Nell spent his lifetime fighting for the inclusion of African Americans in the social and political arenas of American life where they were often excluded in the 19th century.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama
Selected by Anil Nair, professor and chair, Department of Management

In 2009, Barack Obama (1961-) became the first African American president of the United States. He was re-elected in 2012. Born in Hawaii and raised partly in Indonesia, he graduated from Columbia University and eventually became a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. He then entered Harvard Law School, where he became the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. He was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1996, and then to the U.S. Senate in 2004. Highlights of his presidency include signing the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010. In 2009, Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize. "I found President Obama to be an inspiring figure and role model in many ways," Nair says. "Most importantly, as far as his leadership style goes, I found that the grace with which he handled his critics was noteworthy."

Alysa Stanton
Selected by Amy Milligan, Batten Endowed Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Women's Studies; director, Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding

In 2009, Alysa Stanton (c. 1964-) became the first African American woman to be ordained as a rabbi. An Ohio native raised in the Church of God in Christ, she worked as a psychotherapist before converting to Judaism at age 24. She later pursued rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. After her ordination she was hired by Bayt Shalom synagogue, a Reform congregation in Greenville, N.C. She has since shifted her focus to speaking engagements and book projects. Milligan calls her "a powerful voice of social justice."

Harriet Tubman
Selected by Melvina Sumter, associate professor, Department of Sociology & Criminal Justice; director, Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, African American and African Studies Program

Born enslaved in Maryland, Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913) escaped to Philadelphia in 1849 and then returned to retrieve her family. She would go back again and again, rescuing family members and others. Over time, she led about 70 Maryland slaves to freedom, in the process becoming one of the most successful "conductors" of the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War she worked for Union forces as a cook, a nurse, a scout and a spy, at one point assisting in a raid on several South Carolina plantations and helping to free hundreds of slaves. Of Tubman's Railroad work, Sumter says: "She paid it forward, given that with each subsequent return, she selflessly risked the possibility of being captured in order to help other people of African descent gain their freedom."

Patricia Turner
Selected by Karen Vaughan, head of the Scholarly Communication and Publishing Department, University Libraries

Patricia Turner (1944-) was one of the "Norfolk 17" who on Feb. 2, 1959, integrated the city's public schools, Turner entering Norview Junior High. The students had been scheduled to start the previous fall, but "Massive Resistance" to integration had taken hold in Virginia's halls of power. As a result, in September 1958, Norfolk closed three high schools and three junior highs rather than integrate them. The atmosphere grew ever more tense as thousands of students of all races were shut out. After the closing was ruled unconstitutional, integration finally began - but not without a great cost to the Black students, who endured years of taunts and abuse from white classmates, even from some teachers. Undeterred, Turner went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees, and to teach math in Norfolk Public Schools. Vaughan recalls: "Since the '90s when my children were at Blair Middle School, Ms. Turner held assemblies to teach about the Norfolk 17. She has worked tirelessly to make sure the story of Norfolk's desegregation isn't forgotten."

Alice Walker
Selected by Mona J.E. Danner, professor and chair, Department of Sociology & Criminal Justice

Alice Walker (1944-) is the author of the 1982 novel "The Color Purple," which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and was made into a Hollywood film. According to the Poetry Foundation, Walker's writing reflects her upbringing in Georgia, where Black vernacular was prevalent and oppression endured. Her writings include 13 works of fiction, 10 books of poetry and a dozen works of nonfiction. Danner says: "Alice Walker's writing moves me deeply, both fiction such as 'The Color Purple' and essays such as 'In Search of Our Mother's Gardens.' Her writing paints lives in all of their multiple complexities with poignant sentence structures that make me feel and from which I always learn something new. One of my favorite quotes is from Alice Walker: 'The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.' She insists that we can all act for justice."

Booker T. Washington
Selected by Marvin T. Chiles, assistant professor, Department of History

Born into slavery in Franklin County, Va., Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) would become a leading Black intellectual, founding Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (Now Tuskegee University) in Alabama in 1881 and the National Negro Business League two decades later. Chiles notes that Washington "crafted a public persona (stressing wealth over civil rights) that convinced racist whites to fund ambitious Black efforts to uplift their race during Jim Crow. More importantly, Washington inspired Black Americans to take ownership of their lives by building families and communities to shield themselves from a racist white America. While preaching separatism, Washington worked diligently to undo Jim Crow laws by funding numerous test cases against segregation and disenfranchisement. In sum, Washington was a founding father of modern Black enterprise and civil rights efforts."

Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Selected by Ingrid P. Whitaker, associate professor, Department of Sociology & Criminal Justice; graduate program director for the M.A. in applied sociology

A teacher, journalist, suffragist and one of the founders of the NAACP, Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) led a crusade in the 1890s during which she compiled and documented cases of lynching against African Americans since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. While working as a teacher in Memphis, she was dragged off a railroad train after refusing to give up her seat to a white man. She sued and won, but the verdict was overturned. After this incident she began writing for Black newspapers on matters of policy and race. When three of her friends were lynched, she found a new cause. "Wells-Barnett was threatened with death for her efforts," says Whitaker. "However, she persevered, insisting that 'the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.'" In 2020, Wells was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Citation.

Phyllis Wheatley
Selected by Drew Lopenzina, associate professor and director of the M.A. in English program, Department of English

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was born in Senegal/Gambia in West Africa and was captured by slave traders at around age 7. She arrived in Boston and was called "Phillis" after the name of the slave ship that brought her to America. Sold to John Wheatley, she learned in his household to read and write in English, Latin and Greek. Wheatley published her first poem at the age of 14 and went on to become the first African American in the United States to publish a book of poetry. Lopenzina comments: "Wheatley represents to me a combination of genius, resourcefulness and fortitude. Many contemporary scholars now see her as a brilliant networker who, from her abject position, managed to catch the ear of figures like Washington, Franklin, the Earl of Dartmouth, the Countess of Huntingdon and many other influential people of her time. She leveraged this platform to advocate for emancipation and write her own way into freedom." Wheatley voiced strong opposition to slavery and believed that the colonists and revolutionaries could never be real heroes because of their complicity in the institution. She wrote, "How well the cry for liberty, and the reverse disposition for the exercise of oppressive power over others agree I humbly think it does not require the penetration of a philosopher to determine." Wheatley died at the age of 31.

Site Navigation

Presidential Inauguration

ODU commemorated the inauguration of President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., during Homecoming Weekend 2022. Relive the historic weekend.

Fall Open House

It's time to fall in love with ODU! Join us for our last Open House event of the semester on Saturday, November 19.

Commencement 2022

Visit the Commencement Office for information on event times, caps & gowns, tickets and more!