As a ‘Skegee baby, both of my parents are proud graduates of Tuskegee Institute (now, Tuskegee University), my HBCU story began very early. I remember the Tuskegee Club meetings in our living room, travelling out of state to Tuskegee Alumni conferences, and playing in the grass at the club’s annual Back To School celebration. My sisters and I grew up in an environment that celebrated Tuskegee and HBCUs and to this day, we joke that we knew the words to the Tuskegee alma mater better than some Tuskegee graduates!
My HBCU story is rooted in the idea that HBCU graduates are great people who do great things. These great people who met in our living room, asked us about our school work, took an interest in our upcoming piano recitals and choir concerts, and asked us what we were going to be when we grew up were teachers, high school principles, librarians, doctors, dentists, nurses, church leaders, accountants, architects, engineers, corporate and governmental managers, and business owners. Because of the influence of these sorts of people, by the time my sisters and I were in high school, not going to college was never really a consideration for us.
I choose Spelman College because I was excited about the idea of everything there was geared towards me as an African-American woman. Also, as a Chicagoan, I knew I needed a school in a major metropolitan area, which helps justify my not being a second-generation Tuskegee graduate.
Sometime during my freshman year at Spelman, I decided that would carve my initials into the desk drawer in my dorm room. Having grown up to respect other peoples’ property, defacing the desk draw was a radical move for me. Granted, there were many other names and initials already there, but that didn’t mean I was supposed to add to the markings. I can’t remember if I carved my initials or etched my name into the wooden drawer, but I remember that heavens did not open up, the dorm director did not call me to the office, and my parents did not mention it during our weekly conversations on the hall telephone. I’d made my mark and lived to tell the tale.
In retrospect, when I added my name to that montage of Spelman women who came before me, I was doing more than vandalizing school property. I was claiming my space and establishing my legacy. Years, decades, and (if Spelman does not replace the furniture) eras later, there will be tangible evidence that I was there. I was there when the school elected its first African-American female president. I was there when the Board divested from companies with interests in apartheid South Africa. I was there when they filmed The Cosby Show.
I was there.
In a world that has a history of discounting people of color, as a woman of color, when I added my name to the desk drawer I was making a radical statement; I matter. My global contributions aren’t great. My name may never appear in a “Who’s Who” anthology, but that’s okay. Trailblazers like Marion Wright Edleman ’60, Aurelia Brazeal ’65, and Dazon Dixon Diallo ’86 have already turned the world on its head relative to social issues. Dynamic women like Jerri DeVard ’79, Kimberly B. Davis ’81, and Roslyn Gates Brewer ’84 already occupy coveted leadership positions in some of the world’s leading corporations. Spelman alumnae like Shaun Robinson ’84, Cassi Davis ’09, Sherri McGhee McCovey ’87, D’Angela Proctor ’91, and Keshia Knight Pulliam ’01 have already established themselves among Hollywood’s most sought after talents, in front of the camera, in the writer’s room, and in the production booth.
To this impressive, but not exhaustive, list of Spelman graduates, add the school teacher who recognizes and encourages brilliance in her students, the medical professional who daily treats patients with a combination of compassion with competence, the activist whose unsung contributions ensure the needs of her community are met, the researcher whose latest project offers an important voice to an on-going global intellectual discourse, the attorney, judge, social worker, and law enforcement officer who work together to ensure this country dispenses justice fairly, and the entrepreneur who offers viable consumer options and job opportunities to those in her local area.
All these Spelman women are choosing to change the world, and I consider is an honor and a privilege to etch my name alongside theirs.
I suspect my initials are indistinguishable by now. Whoever uses the desk on the left side of Manley Hall room 110 probably has no clue who I am, and may never meet me, but I hope she adds her name to the desk drawer archive. I hope she carves her initials because she matters, too. She is part of an important legacy of women who etch themselves into the very structure of our society. In many ways, that is what Spelman College is all about. Spelman College, like many HBCUs, reminds, reassures, and reifies the idea that we matter, and it is our responsibility to leave a mark wherever we find ourselves.
The daughter of Tuskegee Institute (now, Tuskegee University) alumni, Kimberly D. Russaw is a 1987 alumna of Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She also holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from Clark-Atlanta University as well as a Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree from the Interdenominational Theological Center. Russaw is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Vanderbilt University, and is a partner at The Joshua Group, a marketing consulting firm.