11/5/2013: Aunt Alma died this morning. She was a brilliant woman and a bright light. I am so glad Zuri and I were blessed to spend some time with her in February. Rest in peace, Aunt Alma. Yours was a life well lived.
This afternoon First Lady Michelle Obama will give the Commencement address at Spelman College.
Aunt Alma Stone Williams
Anybody who talks to me for more than five minutes (OK, two minutes) knows that my daughter, Zuri, goes to Spelman. And if you talk to me for 10 minutes you will hear the story of why, among many of the good decisions she has made in her life, Spelman has so far been one of the best.
But Zuri is not the first member of our extended family to go to Spelman. There is Andrea Williams, MD; Gabrielle Fouché Williams, and Janelle Duckett, who with Zuri is a member of the Class of 2012.
And then there is my Aunt Alma Stone Williams.
Aunt Alma entered Spelman at the age of 15. She was valedictorian when she graduated in 1940. She wrote a lovely letter to me with memories of my mom, who was her late husband Russell’s favorite cousin. I’ll share that letter with you in an upcoming post.
After earning her bachelor’s degree at Spelman, Aunt Alma earned master’s degree at Atlanta University. An accomplished pianist, she planned to study at Juilliard during the summer of 1944 when an opportunity arose that was so compelling she could not pass it up. She was invited to be the first ever and only black student at Black Mountain College, an experimental, liberal arts college in North Carolina. Though the school was founded in 1933 on the principles of democratic governance and community living, it had no black students or faculty for the first decade of its existence. School officials wanted to integrate, but weren’t sure how. In 1944 they decided to admit Aunt Alma as a summer student.
“In attending Black Mountain for their Summer Session in 1944, Alma became possibly the first Black student in the 20th century to attend a predominantly white college in the South. (Most other white colleges did not integrate until twenty years or more later),” her son Russell wrote in a chronology in honor of his mother’s 90th birthday April 26.
First Lady Michelle Obama delivers Spelman College’s 2011 Commencement address
In a 2008 profile on Aunt Alma in the Ashville, North Carolina Urban News, she is quoted as saying:
“Pioneering did not frighten me. I was accustomed to studying and living with white teachers at Spelman and to reaching for high standards in all areas.”
Aunt Alma’s decision to take that leap of faith changed Black Mountain College.
“In 1945 the College admitted two African American students to the Summer Session and also two guest faculty members, performers Carol Brice and Roland Hayes,” the Urban News article said. “That fall the college hired an African American faculty member, Dr. Percy H. Baker, and admitted an African American, Sylvesta Martin, as a full-time student for the regular academic year. In the winter of 1947, five black students were enrolled at the college: two men, both veterans of WWII, and three women.
At this point the faculty voted to declare the experimental stage of its interracial program at an end and to release a public statement to the effect that henceforth “admission will be open to all students of all races.”
Spelman’s theme song is “A Choice to Change the World.”
That is exactly what Aunt Alma did.
Congratulations to the Spelman Class of 2011. I’m sure anything I say will pale in comparison to what you hear from First Lady Sister Michelle.
So I will let Aunt Alma’s legacy speak for itself.