50 Phenomenal Black Women Over 50


By Michael Cunningham

By Connie Briscoe

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A photographer and a New York Times bestsellingnovelist profile 50 women over the age of 50 who have been remarkably successful — whether in reaching the top of thecorporate ladder, finding fame in politics or the arts, orraising a son to be proud of a single mother — and revealthe ways that they have prevailed despite daunting obstacles.

Jewels includes well-known and little-known womenalike, from teachers and executives to artists, authors, andentertainers. Among the celebrities profiled in the book areRuby Dee, Eleanor Holmes Norton, S. Epatha Merkerson,and Marion Wright Edelman. Coauthor Connie Briscoe alsoappears here as one of the featured Jewels, telling herinspiring personal story. World-renowned poet, writer,commentator, activist, and educator Nikki Giovannicontributes an original poem to the book.



Copyright © 2007 by Michael Cunningham and Connie Briscoe

"I Am the Ocean" copyright © 2007 by Nikki Giovanni

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Little, Brown and Company

Hachette Book Group

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First eBook edition: April 2009

ISBN: 978-0-316-07570-1

Johnnetta Betsch Cole69


There's a proverb that goes, "You can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been." I'm going to change that to say, "You can't know who you are if you don't know how you grew up." When I look at who I am today, I can see direct paths back to where I was born and who my family was. When I go back and look at my family and my community, I see, in bold letters, "Because you have been given so much, much is required of you." And so the idea of being of service strongly motivates me.

I grew up in the 1940s in a family that was in some ways atypical for that time. My mother and father were both college graduates. My mother went to Wilberforce University, my father went to Knoxville College. I had a sister eighteen months older and a younger brother. No one posed the question, Would we go to college? The only question was, Where would we go to college? We were taught that you can't live a fulfilling life without a good education, and so we wanted a good education.

In some ways I was programmed to be an educator. Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and my great-grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, were close associates and friends. He served on the board of Bethune-Cookman College, and Dr. Bethune gave the eulogy at his funeral. I remember going to Daytona Beach, Florida, where the college is located, and sitting on Mrs. Bethune's lap. She was fascinating to me as an educator, but I was also fascinated with her hats. She could wear some hats.

My mother had two careers. She began as a college professor at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida, where she taught English and was the registrar. After my father died, when I was fifteen years old, my mother left the college and worked as an executive at the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, our family insurance business, which was founded in 1901 by my great-grandfather and six other black men. My grandfather became the president of the company. My uncle was also an executive in the company, and my father served as head of the insurance agents. My mother always worked outside of our home. Yet she also gave my sister and me and later my brother, who is nine years younger than I, quality time.

When I go back and look at my family and my community, I see, in bold letters, "Because you have been given so much, much is required of you." And so the idea of service strongly motivates me..

Another message that I certainly learned from my parents is that women are capable of doing just about any task that men can do and vice versa. My father could braid our hair as well as our mother could. He would take us shopping for our school clothes, and he was a far better cook than my mother was. The book that I coauthored with Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women's Equality in African American Communities, is dedicated to our fathers because they instilled in us the notion that women and men can and should be equal.

I see being the president of Bennett College for Women as an act of service. Of course it's a job, but it's more than a job. I am in service to these young women. When I think about my career, I can also see a direct path back to the emphasis on education in my family. I've written about it, but I can repeat here an experience I had in first grade when a teacher asked us all to stand up and give our names. When I mumbled my name, Ms. Bunny Vance said to me, "Stand up straight, speak clearly, never mumble your name, and get ready to help to change the world." What an impact that had on the direction of my life.

I was strongly encouraged to come to Bennett College for women by Dr. Maya Angelou, a member of Bennett's board of trustees, and I have never regretted that I did. It has been an amazing experience and, I would say, so often full of grace. It is intensely rewarding to be able to work with others in revitalizing a highly important institution that is one of only two historically black colleges for women in our country.

My greatest challenge has been dealing with other people's stereotypes and misperceptions about who I am as a black woman. There is a pervasive assumption that black folk can never be as smart as white folk and that women can never do anything as well as men. When I became the president of Spelman College in 1987, I was the first African American woman president in the 107-year history of that black women's college. Also remarkable is the fact that last year I became the first person of color to chair the board of United Way of America. I was also the first woman to sit on the board of directors of Coca-Cola Enterprise, the largest bottler of Coca-Cola. So what do you learn when you're in this position of being the first? The first thing I hope you learn or know is that many other black women are also qualified to hold that position, so don't get too hung up on yourself. Second, you better know that your responsibility is to make sure that although you're the first to hold the post, you must help to guarantee that you are not the last.

I often say that my greatest work is represented by my three sons, each of whom is truly a decent man who respects women and honors the need to do something to help make this world better. Certainly my greatest accomplishments in the professional world are associated with the presidencies of Spelman College and Bennett College for Women. Sometimes I chuckle and say that I should have a citation in the Guinness Book of World Records because I am the only person who has served as the president of the only two historically black colleges for women in the United States.

These days, the word retirement needs to be redefined, because what it has traditionally connoted is not something I and many of us who are over fifty can imagine doing. For me, retirement will not be about ceasing to work. It will be about changing the rhythm of my work. I see myself not working as intensely, not traveling as much, not enduring the same amount of stress.

How wonderful and intriguing the role of a grandmother is! Stitched onto a pillow in my bedroom is an Italian proverb that says, "When a grandchild is born so is a grandmother." One discovers another side of oneself as a grandmother, for it is a role that is not comparable to any other.

Becoming a grandmother is a relatively recent joy in my life, but over the years I have been a mentor to many young women and men. Being a mentor and being a grandmother have something in common. In each case you are ensuring that your influence will continue beyond your own lifetime.

Being a grandmother and a mentor are among the countless reasons why I enjoy aging. You can be a grandmother when you're thirty, but you do it so much better when you're over fifty. You can be a mentor to someone when you're twenty, but you have so much more to teach and share when you're over fifty. In short, I'm having a wonderful time being exactly who I am at the age that I am.

Starletta DuPois64


My first time on Broadway I starred in a play called The Mighty Gents, and I received a Tony Award nomination for best featured actress for my portrayal of Rita. I appeared alongside Morgan Freeman, who was nominated for best featured actor. I was shocked by my nomination. I thought I would have to work a lot longer for that kind of recognition. But I had really wanted the role of Rita, because I knew that woman, and I auditioned vigorously for the part. They must have had me come back, I'm sure, ten times. But it didn't matter how many times they called me back. Rita's spirit just came to me. I discovered later that there were people who didn't want me to get the part. When I did A Raisin in the Sun, the same thing happened. I had to win people over. But that's fine. People have their favorites. When the reviews come out, it proves to have been well worth the struggle.

After I was nominated for the Tony Award, I was mentioned as a rising star in Ebony magazine along with Debbie Allen and others. I moved to Los Angeles and got work, but not on a regular basis as I had in New York, and not as much as white actresses who were nominated for a Tony and then went on to TV series and film careers. No question there is racism, but that's the nature of the business I chose. Of course I deal with it.

In 1988 I had just finished shooting A Raisin in the Sun for American Playhouse Theater and had started touring in August Wilson's play The Piano Lesson when my dad became seriously ill. I left the production and went home to care for him for two years. He died in my arms. August Wilson was our Shakespeare, and some would say that I sabotaged my career by leaving this production, but I don't see it that way. I honored my dad. I also left Los Angeles to take care of my mother, commuting back and forth between LA and New York from 1992 to 1994.

Although I love my work and plan to do it forever, fame and fortune aren't as important to me as family, faith, and my word. As a young girl I watched my mother leave her family for her work as a performer. She was a dancer with her own act, and I remember seeing her in the film The Glenn Miller Story. When I was about two, my father told her to choose him or the stage, and my mother took him up on it and left. I don't think she expected my father to follow through, but he did and he won custody of us. I try to have more balance. I don't sit around in Los Angeles waiting for a job. I teach. I speak at universities. And I often put family first. I have a life outside of all this.

Although I love my work and plan to do it forever, fame and fortune aren't as important to me as family, faith, and my word.

I still strive to be a better actress, even after all these years performing. I remember starring in my first play in my junior year in college. It was Medea, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was studying biology and planned to go to medical school. My grandmother, who raised me along with my father, was a nurse, and I wanted to be like her. But starring in Medea was an incredible experience, and I was hooked. After college I decided to go to New York to study acting instead of going to medical school. I was about twenty-two or twenty-three years old and started getting stage work immediately. I did a number of plays with the playwrights Ron Milner, Ed Bullins, Richard Wesley, and others. What the Wine-Sellers Buy toured all around the country, and I began to get recognition as an actress.

I hope I'm just beginning to come into my own. I'm inspired when I look at the long careers of actresses like Cicely Tyson, Ruby Dee, and Eartha Kitt. I love all the mediums—television, film, stage—and have had the opportunity to do lovely roles in each of them. Right now, though, my passion is the stage because of the wonderful characters I've portrayed. Television and film can be edited, but onstage it's right there for all to see. Either you have it or you don't. You have to trust your cast and they have to trust you. It's scary, and I still get nervous when I audition. I still get butterflies when I first go onstage. Once I make contact with the audience and get into the role, it gets better.

I remember being thrown into six feet of water at camp when I was eight or nine to learn to swim. I went to the bottom, but I didn't panic. I just swam to the top. When I visited my mother in Atlantic City, we would swim in the ocean. I was like a little fish. I love the water, and I'm becoming certified as a scuba diver. I think that helped me learn to conquer my fears. I'm not a quitter. I have passion, drive, and talent. The word no is like a vitamin to me. I'm going to find a way to do it.

I watched my parents go on despite obstacles. My dad was a dental technician during the Jim Crow era. He would train white men, and they would go on and become his supervisor. But it didn't affect the way he did his work. He still always gave it his best. My mother became paralyzed as the result of a fall onstage, and because of her will and determination she learned to walk again. She went on to found the Hearts and Hands Foundation for the Handicapped to assist the physically and mentally challenged.

I asked God for this and it's wearing me out, but it's a good wearing out. I'm not going to let a few slights throw me off. I'm going to perform artistically with all the love and passion I can muster until I close my eyes.

Eleanor Holmes Norton68


I was a child of the civil rights movement. I have always sought social and economic change, and therefore always regarded myself as oppositional. I've somehow been able to serve in ways that were consistent with my opposition, to represent people who are in opposition. In my work as an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, chairing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and now my seat in Congress, I have been able to continue working against the grain from the inside.

I did not intend to run for Congress. It was hardly something I could have aspired to when I was going to Bruce Monroe Elementary School in Washington, DC, in the 1940s. This was a segregated town. It had no elected officials of any kind, no city council, no mayor. The District of Columbia was one of the five or six Brown v. Board of Education cases and did not integrate its schools until the Supreme Court made it do so in the 1950s. I still remember when the decision came down, and the principal at my school, Dunbar High School, rang the bell and made the announcement.

I lived and breathed opposition to segregation as a child but not in a way that made me feel it would be a burden on me. I do not remember any sense of inferiority based on my blackness. We looked around and saw white people who often were less well educated and thought something must be wrong with them that they would segregate us. We saw them as the problem. I never thought of being black as something I had to overcome.

What was cultivated by segregation was a sense that achievement was important and that the only way to achieve was to get as much education as you could. That was the lesson that was not lost on black children of every economic group growing up in a segregated city where the opportunities for black people were limited.

My parents had a lot to do with this, but I got it by deduction. We were never pushed. They taught by example. My mother was a teacher in the DC public schools. My father graduated from law school but never practiced. The desire to achieve was passed to us by osmosis, by watching the way my parents lived. The stimuli were all around my sisters and me. I recognized the importance of education from the time I was a kid and saw how highly education was viewed in our family and in the black community.

I lived and breathed opposition to segregation as a child but not in a way that made me feel it would be a burden on me.… I never thought of being black as something I had to overcome.

The atmosphere of Washington was also very important. Although Dunbar High School was segregated, some of the country's most prominent intellectuals and achievers attended Dunbar. Howard University—the flagship university of black America—was also here. Howard was regarded as a great university, and people strived to send their children there. People with low-level government jobs, without much education, could send their children to Howard and aspire to see them get ahead.

If that is your background, the one thing you know as a kid about freedom is that education is freedom. What was left for you? To accept the status quo or to get an education and get your version of freedom.

I was in college before I knew I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. The anticommunist McCarthy period was still hanging over America then, and a group of us drove from Antioch College in Ohio to DC for the 1957 March on Washington. This smaller march, held before the one in 1963, is not much noted. Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. spoke. The march was typical of my activism at Antioch, where the atmosphere was politically charged and academically geared toward producing intellectuals and social activists. I began to think of law as a way to help overcome racism and segregation.

But at bottom I am a writer and intellectual, and I read deeply into the social criticism of the time, including critiques of the values of American middle-class society and the black bourgeoisie, which accepted the American status quo. My role models were Michael Harrington, an intellectual and a socialist who wrote The Other America, and Bayard Rustin, the talented black master strategist of the March on Washington. Harrington would travel from college campus to college campus. I loved it when he came to our campus, because he epitomized the intellectual as activist. You can understand what a master Rustin was when you realize that prior to the 1963 march there had never been a protest on that scale by blacks in the history of the United States. We had just come out of the largely silent fifties of my parents' generation. The 1963 march was a huge, groundbreaking event and has been a model for every march since.

I decided to go to Yale Law School because it allowed me to fulfill both my professional and intellectual desires. Yale had two of America's greatest historians: John Morton Blum and C. Vann Woodward. I attended Yale Law School and also got a master's degree in American studies from the graduate school at the same time. When I left the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, I became a law school academic. The natural thing for a federal agency head was to go into private practice rather than academic law. But for me it was natural to bring forward the other part of me, the part that is an intellectual and writer. I became tenured as a professor of law at Georgetown University Law School.

When the congressional seat became vacant in 1990, people began to suggest that I run, but I hesitated. I had tenure, I spoke around the country, I served on three corporate boards, I had a family and two kids. But then I thought about who I am—a third-generation Washingtonian. DC has been my life and my family's life for three generations. With no voting members in Congress, it was the only part of America left without full representation in Congress. Also Donna Brazile, uniquely known for her ability as an organizer, offered to run my campaign. I said, If Donna will do it, I'll do it. After I won, she served as my chief of staff for ten years, until she left to manage the Gore presidential campaign.

I've never had a moment's regret about leaving a wonderfully fulfilling career in academia to serve in Congress. For me nothing is more fulfilling than representing the congressional district where I grew up. Sure, I learned to love the spirit of New York when I was head of the New York City Commission on Human Rights and lived there. But I'm a native Washingtonian. This is where my heart is. The unique challenge for me in Congress is not just getting more resources. It's getting full voting representation and statehood. It's getting to the point where Congress treats this city with full respect and no longer intervenes in local affairs. I find that extraordinarily motivating and rewarding.

Ruby Davis-Jett61


My father taught himself to read from the Bible until he could stand up and read the Bible in church. He was a driven, proud man. He always told me, "The only person who can hold you back is you." I believed it.

I was born and raised in the Benning Road area of Washington, DC, in a working-class area. I was one of five children, next to the baby, and the only girl. You would think I was spoiled, but for some reason I wasn't.

My dad attended school up to grade seven. Mom may have finished the fifth. Throughout my childhood, they both always had two jobs. Dad was a laborer and cab driver, and Mom cleaned offices. Even with our modest standard of living, we had a live-in housekeeper-nanny. We were always clean and well taken care of, and our house was filled with love and encouragement. I remember waking up on the weekends to the smell of fried apples, smothered pork chops, chicken, hot rolls, and grits.

Even though our parents weren't well educated, they learned the value of a good education through their personal struggles, and they encouraged us to finish school and absorb knowledge. They always said to us, "We want you to do better than we did, to decide who you want to be and not allow the world to make that decision for you."They had dreams that I would go to college.

That's why the day I had to come home at age sixteen and tell my parents that I was pregnant was the hardest day of my life. I was in tears, and I get emotional just thinking about the look of disappointment on their faces. My mom asked a lot of questions, as mothers do, but my father sat down and bawled like a baby. I had never seen him cry, and I was shaking in my boots. He never said a word to me that day or the next, but I knew he was deeply hurt and disappointed in me.

If you believe, you can achieve, I always say

Even during my pregnancy, my mother insisted that I hold my head up high. I gave birth to my daughter Monica, then went back and finished high school. My parents didn't push me to get married, because they wanted me to go to college. But in the summer of 1963 I married Monica's father, and we had a second daughter. One year after Lisa's birth, I left him and moved back in with my parents. I got a job as a GS-2 clerk in the federal government, and about a year later I had saved enough to move out on my own and took the girls with me. I was in and out of college but never finished because of the pressures of working and taking care of my girls. I regret that now, because I'm a big fan of education.

That was a tough time for me, and my parents were very disappointed. But they still supported and encouraged me every step of the way. They still told me, "You can do or become anything you want. Don't settle." Those words helped me to keep going, and that's why I've always been driven and was never insecure about my potential. If you believe, you can achieve, I always say.

I worked my way up in the federal government to a GS-14 manager, and while at the Department of Commerce, I became interested in real estate. Not to sell it but to buy and invest in it. I bought a couple of pieces using an agent and thought, I could do this. I got a real estate license so I would understand the market better. I was still only interested in buying for investment purposes.

My friends began to ask me to find houses for them and I did. Eventually I began to sell real estate for Century 21. But I had always wanted to work for myself, and I thought, If I know how to do this so well, why work for someone else? In my second year as a real estate agent, I bought a Century 21 franchise with the money I made selling real estate. I didn't tell anyone I was going to do it, because I didn't want anyone to talk me out of it.

I hired a manager to run the franchise, and I went to the office every evening and weekend. After a while I began to think that I really needed to run my business myself, and in 1989 I quit my government job, seven years before I was eligible for full retirement. Again I didn't tell anyone, because I didn't want them to talk me out of it. I couldn't wait to get into real estate full-time.


On Sale
May 30, 2009
Page Count
224 pages

Michael Cunningham

About the Author

Michael Cunningham was the photographer for Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. His work has been featured in the New York Times and Ebony, among other publications.

Connie Briscoe is a New York Times bestselling author of five novels: Big Girls Don’t Cry, Sisters and Lovers, A Long Way from Home, P.G. County, and Can’t Get Enough. Her work generally focuses on the strength of black women.

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Connie Briscoe

About the Author

Connie Briscoe has been a full-time published author for more than ten years. Born with a hearing impairment, Connie never allowed that to stop her from pursuing her dreams…writing. Since she left the world of editing to become a writer, Connie has hit the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists.

Connie lives with her family in Maryland. For more information visit

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