Monday, October 23, 2017
3 Women who have changed society
By Yussuf Simmonds (Managing Editor)
Published May 10, 2012


Dr. Niara Sudarkasa

Dr. Niara Sudarkasa

Zora Neal Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson

*** Legends ***
By Yussuf J. Simmonds

“3 Women who have changed society”

Dr. Niara Sudarkasa

Anthropologist, Scholar, University President

She does not have a common name nor are her feats in academia commonplace, but she is an anthropologist, a renowned scholar, and has been the president of the oldest Black university in the United States.  She is Niara Sudarkasa and her accomplishments are the stuff that legends are made of and are written about.  She rose to the top of her field quietly and without any fanfare – just quiet determination, steel pride and unparallel focus. 

Sudarkasa was born Gloria Alberta Marshall on August 14, 1938 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.   From an early age, she showed signs of academic brilliance; she excelled at Dillard Elementary and Dillard High Schools.  Her rapid acceleration in school resulting in her skipping several grades thereby moving towards an early graduation.  At fourteen years old, she was already a junior and she went to Fisk University on a Ford Foundation Scholarship at fifteen.

Challenges were a normal part of her educational forte and as an exchange student at Oberlin College, she recognized that the challenge was a bigger there than at Fisk, so she moved to Oberlin to complete her studies.  There she earned degrees in Anthropology and English in 1957.  That was only the beginning of her continuing efforts of mastering one of her chosen fields because she moved onto Columbia University where she received her Masters degree in Anthropology in 1959 and then went to London and Nigeria to do doctoral research on the Yoruba language and culture.  (The Yoruba Tribe is one of the dominant tribes in the West Africa region).

Returning to Columbia to continue her doctoral thesis, she became the first Black woman to teach there, while working towards her Ph.D.  She eventually earned her doctorate at Columbia in 1964; however, she decided to shift her talents to New York University and was the first Black woman to be appointed assistant professor of anthropology.  Being “first” as a Black woman seemed to becoming a routine part of her life, for as she traveled, she realized how many “no shows” there were when it came to Black representation in general, and Black women in particular. 

This led to Sudarkasa’s becoming involved in civil rights issues when she went to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan in 1969.  There she rose to associate vice president and eventually stayed for 17 years until she was appointed to the position of a lifetime – to be the president of Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, the first Black woman to be so appointed.  

While there, she was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the appointment of Clarence Thomas to be an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court in one of the most contentious hearings on an appointee to that Court.  Meanwhile, back at Lincoln, she took aggressive action to ensure that the university increased its enrollment, particularly its Black enrollment, and the same for other minorities. 

Throughout her stellar career, Sudarkasa was actively involved in academic pursuits relative to her anthropology discipline, wrote many publications, and she received numerous awards and 13 honorary degrees.  She is a member of the Dynamic Deltas which boasts a lineup of such luminaries as Lena Horne, Dorothy Height, Carol Moseley-Braun, Nikki Giovanni, Camille Cosby, Cicely Tyson, Leontyne Price and Ruby Dee, just to name a few.  Sudarkasa has also received the prestigious Marcus Garvey Lifetime Achievement Award.     

Her anthropological studies have brought Blacks in America closer to their West African roots through her research of the Yoruba people and a better understanding of the broken link caused by slavery.  Sudarkasa’s studies have shed light on African patterns of residence associated with lineages, compounds and extended families.  That African conjugal families, unlike Western nuclear families, were not structural and spatial isolates, though there are many behavioral correlates of this residential pattern is not accidental when placed alongside the African American family.   Even Nelson Mandela made reference to this in his autobiography when he mentioned his father’s four wives and four households.
After the presidency of Lincoln, Sudarkasa served as a Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the African American Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale, coming full circle to where she began life some 73 years ago. 

Zora Neale Hurston
“A Life Wrapped In Rainbows”

Having lived during the turn of the last century Zora Neale Hurston (1899 – 1960),  had special memories to leave because she brought parts of two centuries with her.  She was born in 1891 and was a decade on the planet when time changed and a new century came into being.  Time is only relevant if it is lived well and meaningfully, and Hurston did just that.  She invigorated and energized the landscape, and left a body of literary and academic work in anthropology, folklore and writing that have surpassed her earthly presence.

When and where she entered the world has been shrouded in mystery; it ranged from 1891 thru 1903, and from Eatonville, Florida to Notasulga, Alabama.  However, the quality of her stay is beyond question.  She was the fifth of eight children that were born to John and Lucy Ann Potts Hurston.  Her father was a Baptist preacher, tenant farmer, and carpenter – he had many mouths to feed and it showed in the ways he had to work for his family’s survival.  Her mother died when she was barely a teenager and that began her transactions to different homes, which eventually led to a gypsy-like, itinerant existence.  Both the NAACP and the Urban League had just been founded.

Hurston did not attend school in the normal course of growing up because of her lifestyle, and when she was able to, the years had slipped by.  So she had to revert to a younger age (and she apparently looked the young part) in order to qualify and attend.  Nevertheless, she went to the Morgan Academy (a division of Morgan College), graduated, matriculated to Howard University in Washington, D.C. by 1918, and followed with a B.A. degree in anthropology from Barnard College in 1928.  However, her dream in life was literature bound.

During her time at Howard she met, and was encouraged by Alain Locke, a professor of philosophy and an authority on Black culture.  She delved into writing and her first story, “John Redding Goes to Sea” was published in “The Stylus” newsletter.  It was followed by “Drenched in the Light” in 1924, and both “Spunk” and “Color Struck” in 1925.  Her writings were well received at the time, since there was a phenomenal gathering of artists and writers in Harlem which became known as the Harlem Renaissance.  It was primarily because of this association of Black artists and writers that Hurston came to New York.  She became a member of the movement and was able to blend her talents with luminaries including Hughes, Countee Cullen, Arna Bontemps, Claude Mc Kay and James Weldon Johnson.   She teamed up with Hughes on a play “Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life” but it never came to production reportedly because of some literary differences.  Her marriage to Herbert Sheen (her sweetheart from Howard University), ended in a quick divorce because of Hurston’s early doubts, and it was years before she got into another serious relationship.  

In the mid-thirties, Hurston received two fellowships, a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1934 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935.   At the same time, she became involved with Percival Punter whom she called, ‘the real love of my life.’  It did not deter her from her dream and passion.  She went on with her life and the fellowships allowed her to direct her talents toward anthropological research and in turn, record the findings into her finest-known works of literature, starting with a novel, “Jonah’s Gourd Vine” in 1934.  One of the main characters seemed to favor a throw-back to life with her father, who “happened” to be a Baptist preacher, like the character, followed by “Mules and Men” in 1935.      The rest of the thirties, and the forties were generally a literary bonanza for Hurston’s work. 

She traveled to Haiti and Jamaica, studied Caribbean voodoo and the cultures of the people.  Her autobiography “Dust Tracks on a Road” came out in 1942 and it was a commercial success.  The success came as a result of Hurston’s literary illustration of Black life at the time; it was criticized by Blacks as negative and White people created its rich rewards.  It also spoke to the direction of her future works – she refrained from addressing racism and the condition of Black people in her work.  It seemed that she wrote – and lived somewhat – in the world that she “wanted” rather than the world that she “had”.   It eventually alienated her from Black people and that led to a series of misfortunes for her.

Her literary appeal dwindled and after World War II and the coming of the Civil Rights Movement, she went further down the path toward oblivion.  She was arrested but the charges were dropped.  She was never able to make a comeback and lived the rest of her days in poverty and obscurity working as a domestic.  She died at a welfare home in Florida from a heart disease in January 1960, but her literary works became the standard for many writers that followed her, names like Toni Morrison (Beloved), Alice Walker (The Color Purple), and Ralph Ellison (The Invisible Man).        

Marian Anderson

“She Laid the Foundation for Blacks in the Entertainment Industry”

Although Marian Anderson displayed a keen interest in the violin, as a young child, she eventually focused on singing and became one of the greatest voices of the 20th century.  Music critics hailed her singing as the greatest contralto of her time and she was the first Black person to sing in a major role in the New York Metropolitan Opera, appearing in Verdi’s “Un Ballo Machera” (the Masked Ball) in 1955.  She had studied music privately and her voice was trained as a contralto in New York City, with the “masters” in Europe, and in her hometown of Philadelphia, with the Philadelphia Choral Society.  From the time she first discovered her talent of the recital song repertory to her maturity as a concert artist, Anderson always sought out teachers and collaborators with whom she could have a learning and growing relationship.

According to a variety of sources, Anderson’s birth date was February 17, 1902, but after her death, her real birth certificate was located and it stated 1897 as the year of her birth.  Her mother, Anna, was a schoolteacher, and her father, John, was a loader at a local market.  She was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the eldest of three daughters.  

At an early age, her skills became evident and she began singing in the church choir at Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia.  Though she had no formal music training, she continued singing until she was seventeen.  Recognizing her extraordinary vocal abilities, members of the church started a trust fund to secure the proper musical training for her that they called “Marian Anderson’s Future.”  Anderson’s introduction to the studio life got its debut at the soprano Mary Saunders Patterson’s place.  This experience along with the trust fund, allowed her to study under, and be trained by, Guiseppe Boghetti, the famous music teacher and tenor coach.

During her formative years, Anderson attended William Penn High School and focused on a commercial education, while doing music and singing at the side.  At 18, she graduated from high school and applied for admission to a music school, but was rejected because of her color – a sign of the times.  She began doing regional tours, gaining confidence as she went along.  She sang mostly at Southern “Negro” (Black) colleges, because no White colleges or other venues would allow her to perform for them; she was unable to do town hall concerts.  That was another sign of the times in race relations.  Eventually, she did sing before a concert-size Black audience at the National Baptist Convention.  

In 1924, she made her professional debut and the following year, she was chosen from among 300 competitors, to sing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  As a result of her great performance, Anderson was then invited to perform as a guest soloist with the Philadelphia Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.  However, racial intolerance prevented Anderson from reaching to the great heights that she knew she was capable of, so she moved to Europe around 1929, and made her debut in Germany shortly after.

However, before moving to Europe, she had received a Rosenwald scholarship and after her debut in Germany, she toured the Scandinavian countries, where she sang in Swedish and Finnish.   When Anderson returned to the United States her talents was more well received, and she was able to do many more performances.  Then in 1933, she returned to Europe where she performed about 142 concerts in less than a year in Scandinavia – singing before King Gustav of Stockholm and King Christian of Copenhagen.   She went on to do performances in Finland and Germany, and concluded in 1935 with an international festival in Salzburg named “the Mozarteum.”   Her music was picked up by Arturo Toscanini and he reportedly told her, “Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years.”  

Returning to the U.S., Anderson did a second concert at New York’s Town Hall. 
It was such a great success that it catapulted her to two more engagements at Carnegie Hall, followed by a tour from coast to coast, then to Europe again and finally, Latin America.  Despite her successes, the ugly face of racism dogged many of her movements in her home country.  The most highly publicized racial event of her career occurred in 1939 in Washington, D.C., the same year she received the NAACP Spingarn Medal.  At that point in her career, she was performing about 70 times per year, and by 1941, she was one of the highest paid concert artists in the country.

Officials from Howard University and Sol Hurok, Anderson’s manager, tried to arrange for her to do a concert at the Constitutional Hall in the nation’s capital; that was the city’s most prestigious center for the performing arts.  Apparently, it was owned and controlled by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and when Hurok sought to have Anderson perform there, the director of the hall reported said, “No Negro will ever appear in this hall while I am manager.”  Since Anderson was very popular, this rejection sparked a public outrage.  Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady, resigned from the DAR in protest, and along with the NAACP, she arranged for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  In a reversal of fortune, she sang before 75,000 and a radio audience of millions on that Easter Sunday in 1939.

Anderson’s performance notwithstanding, the incident triggered a new vitality in the fight against racial discrimination, not only in the arts, but also throughout society in general.  After that Anderson met and married Orpheus Fisher, an architect from Delaware, they moved to her farm in Connecticut named “Marianna Farm.”  Her performances began to lessen when her activities broadened into other areas. 

She made her television debut in 1952 on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” toured India and the Far East as a goodwill ambassador for the U. S. State Department.  And with her honorary ambassador’s title, President Eisenhower appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.  Anderson sang at President Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, and in 1963, she received the American Medal of Freedom. Congress awarded her a gold medal for her 80th birthday in 1977.

Her husband, Orpheus, passed away in 1986.  Later on, she moved to Portland, Oregon to live with her nephew, James DePriest, a music conductor, who had conducted her final concert back in 1965.  She died there at age of 96 of congestive heart failure.  In addition to her music and singing, she left the world her story, “My Lord, What a Morning: an Autobiography.”

Categories: Legends

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