Stand with Bennett CollegeLaurie D. Willis / January 30, 2019
That Bennett College was founded in 1873 as a coeducational institution and became women’s only in 1926 has been well-publicized lately as the college tries to raise $5 million by Friday, Feb. 1. So has the fact that Bennett and Spelman College in Atlanta are the country’s only two all-women’s HBCUs.
But what makes Bennett special are her students, traditions and alumnae, as well as the sisterhood permeating her campus and the social activism that began there in the 1930s and continues today.
With five other institutions of higher learning in Greensboro – the largest with 20,000 students and the smallest with an enrollment more than twice Bennett’s size – it’s easy for what’s often referred to as “the tiny school” to get overshadowed. Yet those who truly know Bennett know she’s Greensboro’s best kept secret. They know about her strong and proud legacy of producing phenomenal women leaders and that closing her doors isn’t an option.
When you talk about Bennett, students like senior Ophelia Murray of Philadelphia must be woven into the tapestry of conversation. Murray studied at Westminster University in London last fall and graduates with honors in May. Last summer, she was among Nike’s 216 interns at its world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, and one of only three working specifically for the Jordan Brand. Murray openly acknowledges being reserved in high school. Bennett helped her find her voice and the leadership skills she didn’t know she possessed.
Carmesha Blackmon of Greensboro enrolled after graduating from the Bennett College Middle College – another reason Bennett is noteworthy. Located on Bennett’s campus, the high school has had a 100 percent graduation rate for many years, often has more than 95 percent of its graduates attend college and has been recognized as a North Carolina and National School of Character and as a National Blue Ribbon School by the United States Department of Education.
Blackmon says Bennett’s sisterhood and mission, the way Bennett women carry themselves and the Institution’s traditions made her choice easy. Traditions like the Casual White Breakfast, held annually just before fall classes begin, Senior Day, when little sisters robe their big sisters about a month before Commencement, and Convocatum Est, when new students walk through the Bearden Gates for the first time, are introduced to the college community and see their signatures in the college register.
Though still proud of its traditions, Bennett has come a long way from the days when Belles wore hats and gloves. Yet its purpose of educating women of color is unwavering and, to be sure, many Bennett students like Jasmine Harrison of Greensboro and Constance Staley of nearby Ramseur could have gone elsewhere.
Harrison garnered national headlines after being accepted into 115 institutions and amassing more than $4.5 million in scholarships. The freshwoman chose Bennett, in large part, because she witnessed the positive impact it had on her older sister, a 2015 Bennett graduate.
Staley was accepted into Spelman, East Carolina University and a few other schools but transferred from Spelman because she found Bennett more affordable and also “because there were tons of opportunities for me to grab within the science department.”
During summer 2018, Staley participated in a prestigious internship in the Graves Lab at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, an academic collaboration between North Carolina A&T State University and UNC Greensboro. A graduating senior, honors student and vice president of the Student Government Association, Staley is now applying to Masters and Ph.D. programs in Biological and Chemical Sciences.
Young Bennett graduates are also doing well. Kaylah Stevenson ’18 is currently teaching English in China, following in the footsteps of Deja Willis ’17, who is also teaching English in the world’s most populous country.
Delrisha White ’13 enrolled in Bennett from the foster care system in San Francisco and became SGA President. She graduated with honors and is now earning her master’s degree at Harvard.
Ka’Dijah Brown, another 2013 graduate, served as president of Campus Ministries and Toastmasters and was a member of Bennett’s NAACP chapter. Today Brown is a fifth grade teacher at Making Waves Academy in Richmond, California. During the recent historic midterm elections, she became the youngest person – and the first active teacher – elected to serve on the Berkeley Unified School District School Board.
Stevenson, Willis, White and Brown are just a few examples. Bennett has many alumnae from all decades who have excelled and, in many cases, been the first African American woman or woman period to reach the pinnacle in their fields – including artists, surgeons, opera singers, U.S. ambassadors, politicians and those in law enforcement.
According to Audrey Demps Franklin ’72, executive director of alumnae relations, Bennett attracts special young women. Franklin, who came to Bennett from Bartow, Florida, has worked at her alma mater for nearly four decades and has seen young women like Stevenson enter as diamonds in the rough but leave polished and ready to face the challenges of today’s global society.
Bennett women have always been taught how to think – not what to think. Likewise, they’ve always participated in social activism. Some people know that the 1960 sit in movement was planned on Bennett’s campus and sustained by Bennett Belles who were arrested and jailed for their nonviolent protest. Dr. Linda Beatrice Brown ’61 chronicles their involvement in “The Belles of Liberty: Gender, Bennett College and the Civil Rights Movement in Greensboro, North Carolina.”
However, scant few know that in 1937, when lynchings were rampant across the south, Bennett women dared to protest outside movie theaters in downtown Greensboro because films depicting African Americans as “equal” to White people were not shown. One of the women leading the protest was Frances Jones Bonner, daughter of then-Bennett President Dr. David Dallas Jones.
Bennett women have always understood their place in the world and that there are no barriers on where they can go – or what they can accomplish – in the world.
That’s what makes Bennett so special. And that’s why her doors must forever remain open.
Laurie D. Willis is the chief communications officer at Bennett College in Greensboro. Email her at: email@example.com.