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PRESIDENT'S BLOG: Let Us Hear It For The Southern Ladies—Steel Magnolias Have Left Their Mark

Cheyney University President Michelle R. Howard-Vital

September 19, 2013

When I was growing up in Chicago in the 50’s and 60’s, sometimes a friend or a teacher would indicate that I had a southern accent.   Now the intonation that usually accompanied this marvelous observation conveyed to me quickly that I needed to work post haste to disguise my southern accent and to learn to talk “right,” so as not to give away the fact that my mother was from New Orleans and my dad from Gonzalez, LA.  However, I must state that my Southern mother was a registered nurse, seamstress, devoted family person, great mom, and avid church-goer. She supported her three children through college, and in her later life, helped her grown children purchase their dream homes.  So, just what was I supposed to be ashamed of?


Over the years, there has been a comment or two about my accent, and I realized that living in North Carolina for over 15 years probably refreshed this accent a bit.  However, for the record, southern ladies have taught this nation a thing or two. 


One of the first southern ladies that I admired on stage was the incomparable and legendary Pearl Bailey.  Ms. Bailey could take any play, or part in the play,  to another level, like the Tony she won for playing Dolly in Hello Dolly. I remember how proud I felt when I was able to purchase expensive orchestra tickets to see Pearl Bailey perform for everyone in my family.  I earned the money working two jobs.  Sitting there, so close, watching Ms. Pearl Bailey performing on stage was one of those special moments in a young woman’s life; it was so easy to be entertained by her style of humor and engaging warmth.  Later I learned that Ms. Pearl earned a degree in theology from Georgetown University at age 67, and she wrote several books. Ms. Bailey also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Reagan, and she is buried not too far from Cheyney University in West Chester, PA. 


Because I loved to read when I was growing up, I was exposed to some southern women through their writings.  Some of these women include Flannery O’Conner, who grew up in Georgia and shared the same religion as I.  Her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” comes to mind sometimes when watching the “if it bleeds, it leads” news.  Southern writer Carson McCullers,  in "Member of the Wedding,"  provoked a great deal of thought about coming to grips with one’s identity and relationships.   Additionally, it was through reading that I learned about the lives of other extraordinary women of the south such as Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, and Dr. Maya Angelou—a Keystone Honors speaker.  Each of these southern women helped to awaken the conscience of a nation through defining moments.  The works of Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez helped guide the next generations—all these women have spoken at Cheyney University.    Recently, I completed Isabel Wilkerson’s research-based, epic book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which followed and connected families of the Great Migration to our current reality.  Ms. Wilkerson has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.


Since coming to Cheyney University, I have become inspired by, humbled by, and guided spiritually by an unsung heroine and southern woman, Fannie Jackson Coppin.   Ms. Fannie Jackson Coppin was born into slavery in Washington, DC, in 1837, the same year that the Institute for Colored Youth (later Cheyney University) was founded by Richard Humphreys and supported, for 176 years now, by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).   My husband found a copy of Ms. Coppin’s autobiographical book, Reminiscences of School Life, which was published after her death in 1913, and gave the book to me for a Christmas gift—how I treasure that book.   Fannie Jackson Coppin graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and became the first African American principal in America at the Institute for Colored Youth known for its extraordinary success in teaching classical education, teacher training, and industrial education to persons of African descent.  After serving the Institute for 36 years, Fannie Jackson Coppin accompanied her AME Bishop husband, at age 65, to Africa on missionary work.  Coppin State University is named after this southern-born servant leader. Cheyney University has her legacy to uphold.


This discussion of southern came up again recently when it was noted that I just hired a North Carolinian woman as Provost- Dr. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins.   Oh well, I guess there is no use trying to explain that it was not the part of the country, but it was the education, background, and belief in the mission of Cheyney University—access, opportunity, and excellence.  The Cheyney University community also looks forward to engaging in dialogue with another southern woman who will be on campus in the spring—Angela Davis.


Hmm, now that I think about it, I am glad to be southern!


Michelle