In 1988, some of the most important Black women in American literature posed for a photo at Spelman. Here’s how it came about.

Susan Ross explains the story behind the photo

Spelman College
Top Row: Louise Meriwether, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Johnnetta Cole, and Paula Giddings
Middle Row: Pearl Cleage, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Toni Cade Bambara
Bottom Row: Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Mari Evans

Photograph by Susan Ross

As told by Susan Ross to Julianna Bragg and Kamille D. Whittaker

In 1988, a group of writers gathered on the steps of Spelman College’s Rockefeller Fine Arts building to fete Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, who had just had become the college’s first Black woman president. We had just gotten out of a wonderful program honoring Dr. Cole and Black women in the arts. People were talking, laughing, and greeting each other . . . Everybody was high off the charge of the whole gathering: This was the culmination of a decades-long discussion of who should lead this historically Black institution, and this was a celebration of the leadership of Black women in many different fields, particularly in scholarship, in literature, and in the arts. I was not the official photographer for Spelman that day, but Jim Alexander—another photographer who was there—and I were trying to document this whole moment for history. We were initially just trying to capture the women who had been honored for a group picture. There were a few women who were not among the honorees but were worthy of being honored all the same—women like Louise Meriwether, who was the author of Daddy Was a Numbers Runner and was one of the early Black Arts Movement novelists; and Paula Giddings, who was not an artistic writer but a scholarly writer. She had just finished writing a history of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and Where and When I Enter, and was beginning her work on journalist Ida B. Wells. But everybody was up there, so we just went with it. You had an aggregation of writers, intellectuals, and performing artists that you probably would not see, all in one place, for another generation. There was a special spirit floating in the air—and nobody really wanted the moment to end.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the photo was taken in 1987. We have corrected the error.

This article appears in our September 2023 issue.