Spelman scholars on the past, present, and future

Alumnae across generations discuss what their alma mater means to them and how it transformed their lives

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Spelman College Roundtable
(L-R) Judge Brenda H. Cole, Zoe Shepard, Malinda Clark Logan, Dr. Georgianne Thomas

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

This summer, we gathered Spelman women of different generations to talk about how the school shaped their lives. They talked about sisterhood, scholarship, and how their college days intersected with pivotal moments in Atlanta history, from the civil rights movement to the pandemic.

Spelman College Roundtable
Judge Brenda H. Cole

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

Judge Brenda H. Cole
(Class of 1963)
Judge Cole had a distinguished legal career in West Virginia and in Atlanta. In Georgia, she served as deputy attorney general before being named a state court judge in 1998. She was appointed as a senior judge by Governor Nathan Deal. Cole is married to Thomas Winston Cole Jr., president emeritus, Clark Atlanta University.

Spelman College Roundtable
Eva Dickerson

Photograph courtesy of Eva Dickerson

Eva Dickerson
(Class of 2019)
Currently serving as a Fulbright Scholar in Vietnam, Dickerson helps the world think about food and climate change. They are a DJ, an event producer, and a farmer. (Dickerson participated virtually.)

Spelman College Roundtable
Malinda Clark Logan

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

Malinda Clark Logan
(Class of 1964)
A music major, Logan is now retired from many years as an Atlanta Public Schools music teacher.

Spelman College Roundtable
Zoe Shepard

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

Zoe Shepard
(Class of 2026)
A Dean’s Scholar and Ethel Waddell Githii Honors Scholar, Shepard is a student trustee and a choir member, and is actively involved in the Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students and the Health Careers Club.

Spelman College Roundtable
Dr. Georgianne Thomas

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

Dr. Georgianne Thomas
(Class of 1964)
Dr. Thomas is a professor, advocate, public relations professional, author, and film producer. Her award-winning documentary, Foot Soldiers: Class of 1964, has aired on PBS and follows the lives of her Spelman classmates during the Atlanta Student Movement.
In May, she was honored by the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

AM: Tell us why you came to Spelman.

Zoe Shepard: For me, Spelman has been a really free space. I went to Campbell IB [International Baccalaureate] and then I was in the Wheeler Magnet [both in Cobb County], so I was comfortable academically. But they weren’t always the most diverse spaces. When there’s only three or four of you in a class, you have this added pressure of wanting to be a good representation for other people—not that it’s necessarily your burden. Now that I’m at Spelman, that pressure just doesn’t exist. I can explore and do things not because I think somebody else is watching. I can just do it because I enjoy it or want to learn about that. So, I would say that’s my favorite part about Spelman so far, is just being more free.

Judge Brenda H. Cole: I came to Spelman in 1959. I was 16 years old. I had an interesting and wonderful first quarter, meeting girls from all over the country. Of course, I had known about Dr. King and the Montgomery bus boycott. It was so exciting to be in his town, but I had no idea what was coming up that second half of the year. North Carolina had its famous sit-in. And soon after that, [Atlanta Student Movement leader] Lonnie King started organizing at the AU Center. It just stirred up the fire. I had told my parents about him. That was not wise. They were saying, Whatever you do, don’t get involved, please. You might be injured. You could be killed. You could be jailed. You could be sent home. So, the first time they called for volunteers, I sat meekly back. I did not volunteer. But the pull was just too great. When they had the big marches, I would participate. It just felt like you were really able to say, for once, This is ridiculous, we are citizens. You got bolder when nothing happened. Being at Spelman at that time was scary, but it was liberating, just liberating.

Dr. Georgianne Thomas: Malinda and I were still in high school at that point. We came in the fall, and they said, We’ve got some new recruits!

Malinda Clark Logan: Spelman did not approve of us being a part of the movement. Rockefeller is on almost every building. All that support came from the North. The missionaries started Spelman. The presidents didn’t know the ramifications of what could happen to the institution, nor to us. So, I understand their reluctance. Dr. Richardson of ITC [Interdenominational Theological Center] convinced the other presidents to let the students join the movement.

Cole: [At first] very few females from Spelman were in those marches, because our parents had told us not to. But we were transformed without even knowing that we were being transformed. It took years for us to say it, to realize the importance—only when Spelman called us back after the film [Foot Soldiers: Class of 1964, created by Thomas and her daughter, Alvelyn Sanders, in 2012].

Logan: When I graduated from Spelman, I don’t recall us dwelling on the movement. We didn’t discuss it among ourselves. Our focus was getting that college education and then getting a job. My most memorable moments at Spelman would be the cultural activities, the religious activities, having a chance to meet some of the best, some of the most highly respected theologians, like Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson and Howard Thurman. Andrew Young, Dr. King, and Dr. Benjamin Mays also came. We had chapel, mandatory, every day. I was a music major, so Mattiwilda Dobbs, Mayor [Maynard] Jackson’s aunt, came to Spelman. There were several opera singers—William Warfield. Spelman brought those to us. I am grateful that I was there.

Thomas: Robert Frost came to Spelman one time. I’m glad I remember him because I was one of those who cut chapel.

Cole: I came to Spelman thinking my future plans were to be a librarian because I loved the library. I read every book in my high school library. But being a rebel with a cause inspired me. The lawyers were getting students out of jail. It was lawyers who were [leading] Brown v. Board of Education. I worked my first job as a librarian after I got my master’s. And then I started thinking that I needed to do something else. At my 10th Spelman reunion, I was inspired by some of my classmates. I said, Okay, this is it, I’m going forward. I applied to Emory and went to law school. Being around young women who helped our whole nation change for the better was the impetus.

Thomas: Nobody talked about the movement when we left Spelman. Many of the people in the movie said that their children didn’t know anything about it. And if my daughter hadn’t said to me one day, “Mom, what’s that mark on your arm?,” I never would have told her that a man burned me with a cigarette when I was marching. Making that movie—it was like God said I had to do it.

AM: This older generation has talked about how Spelman empowered them. How has it been for you younger women? You’ve had a pandemic and all kinds of political challenges. So, it’s been a tumultuous time for you too.

Eva Dickerson: I always tell people that there are two Spelmans. There’s Spelman the institution, which is beholden to all the things that institutions are beholden to, which needs to perpetuate itself and keep people investing in it. But then there’s also the spirit of Spelman, which comes from people who create interventions and is deeply connected to the spirit of the city of Atlanta. That distinction is really important. When I was at Spelman, we watched a documentary. The school’s motto is “A Choice to Change the World,” and there’s lots of civil rights and resistance imagery. We’re told the school was founded to educate formerly enslaved Black women. Through all of this ceremony and story, you’re kind of imbued with the spirit of Spelman—the spirit of people who are unafraid to make necessary interventions in hopes of creating a different, more just, more equitable, more compassionate reality. Our professors have always been on our side, whether we were disrupting about sexual assault, labor practices in the prison industrial complex, or even the police training facility. There have always been small pockets on campus where we can feel that radical spirit of Spelman. Then there’s the institution of Spelman, which shows you that there is one correct, respectable way to protest. If you fall outside of those bounds, your place on campus is in jeopardy. Your place within the Spelman siblinghood is in jeopardy. It’s a really interesting dichotomy.

Shepard: I’m a student trustee, so I’m learning a lot about the institution of Spelman, and I am still learning about the community and the spirit. I think Spelman wants to stay true to our mission. Spelman consistently accepts students who are Pell Grant–eligible or went to schools that are underfunded and underresourced. Spelman the institution and Spelman as a community do have that ongoing tension in those different spheres. The struggle for my generation is that, previously, things were a lot more overt. In our generation, things are more covert. There are microaggressions, little things that aren’t always obvious. There’s that ongoing tension of, how do we continue to be the Spelman of the past, while also trying to navigate social media and what the modern world is for our generation?

Thomas: I like her saying that. Thanks for making that position for us and for me. Spelman as the institution is probably what kept me there. Spelman as a spirit made me follow you guys. I was mad with my roommate because she wouldn’t march with us, but she said—Spelman as an institution—she would lose her scholarship maybe, her parents may lose their job. But I didn’t have any restraints. I was from Gary, Indiana.

AM: What did it do for you to be at an all-female school?

Logan: There were no sororities on campus [at the time], but I didn’t feel deprived. We had a group of us who lived in the dorm. The majority of us never did join a sorority. Because of my acceptance, I belonged to a sisterhood. I have never felt the need to join a sorority.

Cole: I had the need—because my mother, my mother-in-law, my sisters, my sisters-in-law, they were all Greek.

AM: Is it true that you had rules like you couldn’t go downtown unless there were six of you, a ten o’clock curfew as freshmen, and required chapel?

Logan: Girl, what are you talking about? It was six o’clock for freshmen! And there were calling hours. The young men would come to the dorm and sit in the lobby, and you’d go down and sit with him until time for dinner. Men had to be off campus by six. [Atlanta Student Movement leader] Charles Black tells how he stayed until five minutes to six, then he’d run over to campus because they stopped serving food at six at Morehouse. You could always tell the Spelman women at the movies because we had to stand up and leave before it was over to get back to campus. I remember going to see Gone With the Wind, but we didn’t see the end of it. But I’m grateful for those restrictions and for their caring.

Cole: I was at Morehouse North when Sam Cooke came on campus. He really went to South, he had a home girl. But word got out, and we went screaming over there. Miss Taylor punished everybody in the dormitory. We were on social probation. You could only go to class and the cafeteria.

Shepard: We do have curfews for a few weeks [at the beginning of school].

Dickerson: Do they still call it “Spel Jail”? For your first two weeks on campus, you’re not supposed to leave. But everyone sneaks off.

Shepard: We still wear the white dress, flesh-toned stockings, and black shoes for any important event. One morning [my freshman year], the RAs came through super early and woke us up. We went outside and were singing the Spelman hymn, and none of us knew what it was. We had on masks, and we couldn’t even read lips. We went in the chapel, and there was this presentation of past Spelman alumnae. We had little candles. In our class, there were like 650 of us, and each of us stood up one by one and said, “I am a Spelman woman.”

AM: How close were you to students at other AUC schools?

Dickerson: We were friends across all of the campuses within the AUC. We spent a lot of time with Clark Atlanta students, Morehouse students. I was really interested in media studies, and Morehouse has a really amazing media studies program. But Morehouse didn’t have a lot of the offerings that queer students were looking for, so a lot of my classes in the Women’s Center were attended by Morehouse and Clark Atlanta students, which was really cool. We recognized a lot of the problems across our institutions were really shared.

Cole: May I ask about the LGBTQ movement? Dr. Johnnetta Cole was president when that maybe got kick-started. Since that time, the national movement has been so impactful. How has that changed things at the AU Center?

Dickerson: I think Morehouse, Spelman, and even Clark Atlanta have an opportunity to lead. Sometimes they take up these opportunities, and sometimes they don’t. When I was at school, my best friend, Jill Cartwright, was the student government president, and she spent so much of her time researching and working to develop a trans admissions policy that would both honor Spelman’s legacy as a women’s college and also acknowledge that Spelman represents a safe haven for so many people in the Black community. So many people in the Black community look to Spelman for safety, for rest, and as a healing balm. As a student, it was really clear to me that queer people have always been at Spelman. It’s just about how the campus has adjusted to welcome them. I think Spelman oftentimes leads the conversation on the LGBTQ movement, and the rest of the nation is following—because Spelmanites are leaders by nature.

Comments have been slightly edited for space and clarity.

This article appears in our October 2023 issue.

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