Toni Harris made history by getting a football scholarship. Now she needs to make tackles. Free safety has already overcome doubters, cancer and family trauma. Playing against men doesn’t faze her.

FAYETTE, Mo. — Perhaps you’ve heard of Antoinette “Toni” Harris. Earlier this year, the 23-year-old became what is believed to be the first woman to accept a scholarship to play football at a four-year college — not as a kicker, as other women have done — but as a position player.

Harris, a free safety, signed with Central Methodist University, a school with 1,000 undergraduates that plays in Division I of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). She’s arrived on campus three weeks ahead of camp to get extra time with the strength and conditioning coach. And, like everyone else on the team, she’s hoping to see some playing time when the season starts on Aug. 31.

Fayette is a dot on the map between St. Louis and Kansas City, a four-block town surrounded by cornfields and soybean farms. On a sweltering Sunday morning in July, the women at Savory Bakery are serving coffee and tea as the radio pipes in The Platters singing “The Magic Touch,” a song that hasn’t seen the Billboard charts since 1956.

We’re two blocks from town, in the center of Central Methodist’s campus, with Harris, head coach David Calloway and defensive backs coach LaQuentin “Q” Black in Calloway’s office on the second floor of Brannock Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus. Harris’ hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail. She’s wearing a “Women are Dope” T-shirt and has a diamond stud in her left nostril. She stands only 5 feet, 7 inches tall, but her 165-pound frame is rock-solid.

Central Methodist head coach David Calloway, left, and defensive backs coach LaQuentin Black, right, both view Toni Harris as a budding talent who has the skills, aptitude and eagerness to develop.

Neeta Satam for The Undefeated

She didn’t play for her high school varsity team and only sparingly during two years of junior college. Her demeanor isn’t that of a sports star but of a wide-eyed college student. But Toni Harris is famous.

“There have been so many women — I can’t even count, like over probably 100 or 200 — that contact me every day, whether in middle school, high school or getting ready to go to college, that want to play [football] at the next level,” she says. “They say I’m an inspiration and ask if I have any tips on how they can become better football players. I tell them to just keep pushing and working hard, and just never give up believing in yourself.”

The world discovered Harris over the course of 60 seconds on Feb. 3. During Super Bowl LIII, Toyota debuted a commercial featuring her and her quest to play football. Tens of millions of viewers saw Harris running, training, lifting weights and driving a Toyota.

“They’ve said a lot of things about Toni Harris,” intones narrator Jim Nantz. “They said she was too small. They said she was too slow. Too weak. They said she’d never get to the next level. Never inspire a new generation. Never get a football scholarship. Yeah, people have made a lot of assumptions about Toni.”

Harris then looks into the camera and delivers the closing line, the one she proudly says she wrote herself, the one that sums up her remarkable journey.

“I’ve never been a big fan of assumptions.”


It would have been easy to write off the young Harris when she was growing up on the west side of Detroit. Placed in foster care at the age of 4, she ended up in three different homes by the age of 15.

“You don’t really see anything wrong with it until you’re older,” she says. “I wanted to see my mother and I wanted to know who my father was. But I was always one of those kids who was very optimistic. I had my faith and believed in a lot of things that were positive.”

Harris met her biological father, Sam Clora, four years ago. He is now a part of her life, as are her nine biological siblings (five sisters and four brothers). But her birth mother, Donyale Harris, with whom she always maintained a relationship, died in a car accident this past spring.

Facing obstacles is nothing new for Toni Harris. At 4 years old, she was placed in foster care. And in her freshman year in college at Toledo, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Neeta Satam for The Undefeated

One of Harris’ obstacles was simply getting onto a football field. She became infatuated with the sport when was 5 years old, watching her older cousin Demetrius and the Westside Steelers win the national Police Athletic League (PAL) championship.

As Harris remembers it, what she saw on the field that day was a happy, teary-eyed family. “After that, I kind of fell in love with the game of football and never put the ball down.”

With no PAL team willing to accept her, she picked up the game on her own, watching others and playing in neighborhood pickup games. She finally talked her way onto the junior varsity squad at Redford Union High School in suburban Detroit. She was the only girl on the team and played wide receiver and cornerback. (She was also a cheerleader, which is, ironically, how she suffered her worst athletic injury, a bruised knee.) But in the midst of transitioning to senior varsity, she was booted from the team.

“The athletic director [Mike Humitz, who passed away in January] told me he didn’t want to let me play,” Harris recalled. “He said, basically, football was a man’s sport and I shouldn’t be out there. And he was being really sarcastic. He was like, ‘So what’s your next sport? Boys’ basketball? Men’s wrestling?’ ”

Actually, Harris did have a plan: playing in college. She enrolled at the University of Toledo intending to walk onto the team. But fate dealt her another blow. In her freshman year, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“Because of the radiation I had lost the back of my hair and my body was very weak, and most of the time I wasn’t able to go to school. At first, I was gonna stop playing football, but then I was like, you know, if I can beat this, then what else can I overcome?” — Toni Harris, on dealing with cancer

“The chemo was really hard to handle because my body went from 170 pounds to 90 pounds,” she says. “The chemo was worse than the cancer was. Because of the radiation I had lost the back of my hair and my body was very weak, and most of the time I wasn’t able to go to school. At first, I was gonna stop playing football, but then I was like, you know, if I can beat this, then what else can I overcome? And so just after the chemotherapy, that’s when I decided to go back to football and try to gain back my weight.”

We can’t help but ask how she absorbs these gut punches. She’s taken so many.

“I think God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers, and I feel as though I’m one of God’s stronger soldiers,” Harris says. “So I feel like I can overcome anything that’s thrown my way.”

Harris enrolled at Golden West College, a community college in Huntington Beach, California, south of Los Angeles. There, she was thwarted in her efforts to play football when head coach Nick Mitchell turned her down.

“She tried out for the team [as a wide receiver and defensive back], but didn’t make it,” Mitchell said in a phone call with The Undefeated. “I didn’t think she was ready for the collegiate level. It had nothing to do with her being female.”

Harris then tried women’s soccer, but it didn’t scratch her itch for football. So she signed up at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) while still enrolled at Golden West and pursued (and ultimately earned) two associate’s degrees simultaneously: one in social and behavioral sciences, the other in criminal justice. At ELAC, she badgered head football coach Bobby Godinez to put her on the team. And, eventually, he caved.

But Harris didn’t just want a uniform, she wanted to play. After everything she’d already been hit with, how much harder could she get slammed on the field?

“She wouldn’t accept no as an answer,” Godinez says on the phone with The Undefeated. “[But] my ‘no’ was out of fear. Having a daughter myself, I was nervous about what the repercussions could be. You have injuries at a high, high level in this sport. But I did tell her that if she sticks around and she proves that she belongs, things could change.”

Harris never missed practice, never missed a meeting, never missed the weight room.

“She was very, very persistent with her goals, and she wouldn’t give up,” Godinez says. “And when it came down to it, her teammates were the ones who said, ‘This girl belongs here.’ ”

That moment came in Week 2 of her first season. As Godinez recalls, “A defensive lineman approached me and said, ‘Coach, give her a jersey, she deserves it.’ ” Harris rarely got on the field that season but still got a scholarship offer from Bethany College, an NAIA school in Kansas. She elected to stay at ELAC, and as a sophomore she played in three games, in which she broke up a pass and made three tackles, including one for a 24-yard loss.

She put those highlights on video and sent them off to four-year programs in the hopes of catching a coach’s eye.

“I don’t even know how many schools [I sent to],” Harris says. “Probably over 200.”

The timing couldn’t have been better. Harris’ highlight video went out right before the Super Bowl and the Toyota commercial. Suddenly, the media was championing the young woman who was challenging stereotypes and defying assumptions. Radio hosts talked about her. Good Morning America and The Today Show featured her in prime guest spots.

The gamble to stay at ELAC had paid off. Now she had scholarship offers from five more colleges — one a Division II school in the NCAA, the others in NAIA.

But only one of those coaches impressed her: Calloway at Central Methodist. He’d been there before the hoopla, emailing her, phoning her, recruiting her. And he’d always been straight with her.

“He wasn’t one of those coaches who was promising you things,” Harris says. “I think what attracted me to this school, to this coach, was him telling me, ‘You’re gonna have to work for your spot.’ ”


Calloway was a four-year starter at Langston University in Oklahoma, graduating in 1997, and has spent 21 years coaching at the collegiate level. At Central Methodist, he faces an uphill battle. Since he took over as head coach in 2016, the Eagles have gone 8-24. But judging from all of the thank-you notes from former players and students pinned to his corkboard, Calloway is a patient and supportive coach who has generated a reservoir of goodwill.

Calloway leans back in his swivel chair and we ask the obvious question: How did it feel to make history? We’re surprised to hear Calloway say he figured some other female athlete had already done it.

“[Making history] never crossed my radar,” Calloway says. “I assumed somebody had already kicked or something.”

Central Methodist head coach David Calloway says Harris will be fighting for her position in the defensive backfield with a three-year starter and another junior college transfer.

Neeta Satam for The Undefeated

In fact, several women have kicked for four-year schools since Liz Heaston did so for Willamette University in 1997, becoming the first woman ever to score in a college football game. Others include Ashley Martin at Jacksonville State, Katie Hnida at Colorado and New Mexico, and April Goss at Kent State. But not one received a scholarship to a four-year school at the Division II level or higher until 2018, when Rebecca Longo signed to kick for Adams State in Colorado. (Shelby Osborne, a defensive back, signed with Campbellsville University in Kentucky in 2014, but she was not initially on scholarship.)

And now Harris is “the first female incoming student to receive a football scholarship as a position player,” says Jennifer Saab, director of communications at the NAIA.

So if Calloway didn’t intend to make history, why did he recruit Harris? He said he sees his role as giving young people opportunities, not just to play football but to graduate. He views Harris as a budding talent, one with skill, an aptitude for the game and an eagerness to develop.

Coach Q agrees. “Her feet are really good and she’s quick out of her breaks,” he says. “When you’re bringing someone on in the [defensive] back end, you want someone that you feel can lead and take charge, and I haven’t seen anything different from her. We’ll see if she’s coachable once we get her on the football field and in the meeting rooms, but so far, so good.”

If Harris takes the field this season, isn’t she bound to run into guys, big guys, who don’t think she belongs there?

Calloway doesn’t seem concerned.

“[Think about] what she’s been through in life,” he says. “Football’s probably not gonna be that tough when all is said and done. Having beat cancer at a young age, and then growing up in foster homes and then maintaining a great attitude through all of it, I think that’s gonna help. That’s what I [see] from a character standpoint. When she puts her mind to things, she can get stuff accomplished.”

Harris has what it takes to withstand any pushback on the playing field, Calloway says. “You read on social media, ‘I will run her over,’ ” he says. “She’s not gonna just sit there and let you run her over. She has more sense than that. She understands she’s on the field with 21 other guys. We’re putting her in position to make proper tackles.”

“[Think about] what she’s been through in life. Football’s probably not gonna be that tough when all is said and done. Having beat cancer at a young age, and then growing up in foster homes and then maintaining a great attitude through all of it, I think that’s gonna help.” — Central Methodist head coach David Calloway

When the hits come, Harris is convinced she’ll be ready. “I don’t feel like it’s out of the norm for me to be playing with men,” she says. “I mean, [former NFL wide receiver] Trindon Holliday was 135 pounds and 5-6, and I’m much bigger. … Football is about being mentally strong. Are you mentally ready when somebody catches a pass on you? Are you mentally ready to get over that and go to the next play?”

It remains to be seen whether Harris will be on the field against Clarke University on Aug. 31. Calloway makes it clear that she’ll be fighting for her position with a three-year starter and another junior college transfer.

But, as Harris has demonstrated before, competition only feeds her drive.

“I don’t expect anything to be easy,” she says. “It’s never going to get easier. If anything, it’s going to get harder every day.”

That’s probably true, especially if she follows her dream to play in the NFL. If she doesn’t make it to the pros, would she consider playing in one of the women’s semipro or amateur leagues around the country?

“If they made a women’s NFL, then yes,” she says. “I know people play recreationally, but I want to get paid to play just like anybody else. I want a career. So if they don’t plan on putting in a WNFL then I’ll be seeking other things and other ways to make money.”

After meeting Harris, we try not to assume she’ll do it all — take the field on opening day, intercept a pass. And we try not to fantasize that one day she’ll live her dream and put on an NFL uniform.

It’s not easy, because she’s so easy to root for.

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. It has a problem with black men. The move to regulate agents looks like yet another effort to police black mobility and freedom

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. The problem is that its structure is designed to regulate the freedom of athletes to turn pro in primarily black sports but not in white ones.

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Earlier this week, the NCAA implemented what was immediately labeled the “Rich Paul Rule,” after the man who represents NBA players LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, John Wall, Ben Simmons and 2019 first-round draft picks Darius Garland and Darius Bazley. The new regulations require that agents interested in representing players who are considering declaring for the NBA draft now must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified with the National Basketball Players Association for at least three years and take a comprehensive in-person exam at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Paul, who never attended college, is one of many agents affected by this rule — but unquestionably the most prominent.

The NCAA’s move was instantly lambasted as hypocritical and vindictive. “The world is so afraid of ground breakers.…This is beyond sad & major B.S.,” tweeted comedian Kevin Hart. James, Paul’s biggest client, longtime friend and confidant, could only laugh at the NCAA’s energy, saying, “Nothing will stop this movement and culture over here.”

Chris Rock explained the context for the NCAA mandate years ago. “We’re only 10% of the population,” he said on 2004’s Never Scared. “We’re 90% of the Final Four!”

Only basketball must adhere to the new NCAA mandate. The actual text doesn’t mention race. Nevertheless, the writing is not just written on the wall, it’s been carved. It’s a “race-neutral” rule that isn’t race-neutral. This comes with historical precedence that the NCAA knows all too well.

One of the worst-kept secrets in sports is how top-tier college football and basketball programs directly benefited from desegregation. Before integration, the vast majority of top black athletes had no choice but to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Once the larger and richer predominantly white schools began to integrate, HBCUs couldn’t compete. But there’s been a parallel development too: The graduation rates for black athletes at top sports programs remain consistently and embarrassingly low.

Agent Rich Paul (right), seen here with LeBron James (left), is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power.

Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group

Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, found that, overall, black male athletes graduate at higher percentages than black males who are not involved in sports. But that’s not true for the NCAA’s wealthiest leagues: the Power 5 of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

“The [NCAA] has claimed in television commercials that black male student-athletes at Division I institutions graduate rates are higher than black men in the general student body,” the report says. “This is true across the entire division, but not for the five conferences whose member institutions routinely win football and basketball championships, play in multimillion-dollar bowl games and the annual basketball championship tournament, and produce the largest share of Heisman Trophy winners.”

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Black men made up 2.4% of the Power 5 student population but 55% and 56%, respectively, of its football and basketball teams. Of those numbers, 55% of black male athletes graduated in under six years, compared with 60% of black men in the overall undergraduate population and 76% of all college graduates.

“Over the past two years, 40% of these universities have actually had black male student-athlete graduation rates that have declined,” Harper said. “We’re supposed to be getting better, but actually 40% of these places have gotten worse.”

Meanwhile, the debate over paying college athletes is sharply divided by race. Most whites are against “pay to play,” while most blacks strongly support it because the current system exploits a largely black athletic base.

In the NBA, the sport is still primarily black. (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that during the 2015-16 season, 81.7% of NBA players were people of color and 74.3% were black.) But black athletes have significant power and influence over everything from where they play to who coaches them to the structure of their contracts.

This shifting power dynamic is beginning earlier and earlier too. Bazley skipped college last year to become a million-dollar intern with New Balance. R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, both touted as 2020 lottery picks, are taking their talents to Australia for a year before declaring for the NBA draft. Hampton has already inked a shoe deal with Li-Ning.

As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel noted, the new rule’s standard doesn’t apply to college hockey players or baseball players, who can be drafted out of high school but can choose to attend college if their draft placement doesn’t appeal to them.

If this wasn’t about a young black man who achieved his success out of the mud and then empowered other black men to recognize their worth in spite of an organization that has for years manipulated their talents for the organization’s gain, if this wasn’t about yet another American institution attempting to police black mobility and freedom, then it’s difficult to see what the actual reasoning is.

This brings the discussion back to Paul and James. It’s often been said there is a Jay-Z lyric for any situation in life. Perhaps the most fitting here is a bar from Jay’s 2001 album The Blueprint, which entered the Library of Congress in March: All I need is the love of my crew / The whole industry can hate me, I thugged my way through, he pledged on “All I Need.” In essence, this has been the motto for Paul, James and the two other members of their inner circle, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims.

When James cut ties to agent Aaron Goodwin in 2005, eyebrows raised and many said that the young basketball phenom had risked his career before it truly tipped off. At the time, it was easy to understand why, given that Goodwin had helped the 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick obtain a bevy of endorsements, including Bubblicious chewing gum, Upper Deck trading cards, Sprite, Powerade and, most gaudy of them all, a seven-year, $90 million shoe deal with Nike. Few believed in James’ vision when he turned to three of his childhood friends to chart the course of his career on and off the court.

“James’ switcheroo a youthful mistake,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote.

“I will promise you really ugly things will happen,” said former NFL player turned financial adviser Jim Corbett. “This is a big mistake, a bad decision that is going to cost LeBron.”

Which leads us to another Jay lyric, this one from 2009’s “Already Home”: And as for the critics, tell me I don’t get it / Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it. Thanks to the friends he entrusted with his career nearly 15 years ago, James is not only the most powerful player in basketball history but also a player in Hollywood, fashion, education and politics.

Money and power elicit respect, as elucidated by Kimberly Jones. But they also open the door for fear and angst. President Donald Trump took shots at LeBron on Twitter last August after the launch of his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, saying it was hard to make “LeBron look smart” and weighed in on the NBA’s most contested debate, saying he preferred Michael Jordan over James — which Jordan quickly rebuffed. The two were labeled “mob bosses” by an unnamed Western Conference general manager last season after public attempts to move Anthony Davis to the Lakers (a move that eventually happened).

From left to right: Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Rich Paul, Ben Simmons and Miles Bridges attend the Klutch 2019 All Star Weekend Dinner Presented by Remy Martin and hosted by Klutch Sports Group at 5Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Feb. 16.

Photo by Dominique Oliveto/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group 2019 All Star Weekend

Rich Paul is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power. And to the image of an industry that is still dominated by white males and has long exercised fiscal and moral authority over black athletes.

Basketball altered its rules to make it harder for three players who made the game look too easy (i.e., they dominated the white players too much): Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Maybe the NCAA didn’t implement this rule with Paul as its sole motivation. Just like maybe the NCAA wouldn’t be so open to criticism if it made the education of players a higher priority.

Unfortunately, the NCAA addressed a perceived problem while never addressing its own. Sometimes sports really is a reflection of life.

Rapper 21 Savage is helping Atlanta youth learn financial literacy ‘I didn’t really learn about that type of stuff until I got older’

ATLANTA — In the midst of his annual back-to-school drive on Sunday, rapper 21 Savage was in awe at the 2,500 kids who showed up for free haircuts/hairstyles, shoes, school uniforms, backpacks and school supplies.

The turnout wasn’t a shock, as he’s experienced that same energy for the past four years in which he has hosted “Issa Back 2 School Drive” for the kids who live in the Glenwood Road neighborhood where he grew up in Atlanta.

“Doing this every year feels good,” 21 Savage told The Undefeated.

This year, in partnership with Amazon Music and Momma Flystyle, the outdoor event also offered free health screenings, mobile video game arcades, resources on mental health awareness and insurance, tips on eco-friendly sustainability efforts, local vendors, hot dogs, ice cream and fun park activities.

On Aug. 4, Rapper 21 Savage hosted his annual “Issa Back 2 School Drive” for the kids in the Glenwood Road neighborhood where he grew up in Atlanta, Georgia.

Prince Williams/Getty Images

But his giving spans far beyond his school drive.

21 Savage’s passion is in educating youth from underserved communities about the power of the dollar and the value of hard work. The throaty Grammy nominee’s nonprofit organization, Leading by Example Foundation, launched its Bank Account campaign, named after his double-platinum single, to teach young people about financial health and wellness.

“A lot of kids don’t know what to do when they get older,” 21 Savage said. “Financial literacy is an important tool they need to get through life successfully.”

A successful trap music artist known for his grim lyrics depicting poverty, street life and post-traumatic stress, 21 Savage said his efforts to promote youth and economic development are deeply rooted in his own lack of exposure and access to commerce as a kid.

“I didn’t really learn about that type of stuff until I got older and became an artist and entertainer,” he said.

The 26-year-old chart-topping performer, born Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, has a job program, and he offers monthly financial literacy webinars for youth.

He partnered with education-themed nonprofits JUMA Ventures and Get Schooled to offer summer employment to 60 Atlanta-area high school and college students. Their duties include light custodial and concessions jobs.

“We want to work with these young people particularly to give them opportunities,” said Robert Lewis Jr., JUMA’s Atlanta site manager. “You want to give these young folks help. They may have had issues with the law or go to a nontraditional school, and we want to give them a job. It gives them a sense of dignity when they’re working.”

“This is monumental,” said Courage Higdon, a 22-year-old Georgia Southern University student and program participant. “The program keeps us focused. It’s more than a job — it teaches us actual life skills that we can use in other places in our lives. They help us become more financially literate. As an African American community, we need to get better at it.”

The Savage Mode rapper presented JUMA with a $15,000 check to help 150 young people open their own bank accounts.

“21 Savage tries to tell us that he wants us to bring everybody around this neighborhood together to support black-owned businesses and black people in the community,” said participant Khaleege Watts, 20.

21 Savage is set to spend a day shadowing the student participants later this year.

The “No Heart” and “A Lot” rapper hosted his monthly webinars on Get Schooled’s website, where he concentrated on teaching money management habits, budgeting/saving, investments and distinguishing between credit and debit.

But his passion for giving to youth doesn’t stop there.

When he released his sophomore LP I Am > I Was in December 2018, he gifted $16,000 in Amazon gift cards to youngsters who attended the album’s companion interactive Motel 21 activation in Decatur, Georgia. He also visited several colleges and STEM schools in metro Atlanta, along with U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), to lead 21st Century Banking Workshops, cross-topic fireside chats featuring discussions on financial capabilities, career opportunities in the music business, gang violence and gun control.

“21 Savage is putting action behind his money,” Lewis said. “He actually tells people how to start their business and how to save money. He’s turned his life around and is a great spokesperson for young people. Young people were glad that JUMA partnered with 21 Savage because they said he speaks for them.”

21 Savage was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement earlier this year on Super Bowl Sunday for overstaying in the United States on a visa that expired in 2006. The MTV Video Music Award winner, who was born in the U.K. and came to the U.S. with his mother at age 7, was detained for nine days and is still awaiting a deportation hearing. The former troubled teen and high school dropout donated $25,000 to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group that assisted with his naturalization issues, in June.

“A lot of people need help that’s in bad situations,” 21 Savage said. “They don’t have the funds to get legal representation, so I just made the donation. The organization does the work for free anyway, so I just thought it was necessary to contribute.”

Alona Stays, 21, received a $1,000 mini-grant from 21 Savage to invest in production equipment for her home studio. The YouTuber and aspiring filmmaker echoes her peers, calling the rapper’s philanthropic gifts and outreach efforts “amazing.”

“Not a lot of artists like him are doing something,” Stays said. “It’s a blessing for him to do this for us, and I’m very grateful. This plays a big role in anybody’s life. People like 21 Savage [are] trying to make things better. It’s not all about guns and drugs; it’s about the community and these kids.”

Another hidden figure: Clyde Foster brought color to NASA Over three decades, he recruited hundreds of African Americans into the space program

Clyde Foster came of age in Alabama in the 1950s, a place and time so oppressive for African Americans that a former Nazi rocket scientist stood out as a figure of racial moderation.

Foster’s father worked at a Birmingham iron foundry, where the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs were reserved for African Americans. Every day he would come home dog-tired, prompting his son to vow that he would earn a living using his mind, not his back. By itself, that was an audacious plan for a black man living in Alabama.

But Foster did much more than just find himself a desk job. He became a pioneering figure in the U.S. space program. Over nearly 30 years working for NASA, beginning in the agency’s earliest days, his mathematical calculations helped propel rockets into space. His focused determination helped establish a computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University, making the historically black institution the first public college in Alabama to offer the major. And his quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound.

A page from a brochure for the Computer Science Center at Alabama A&M. Clyde Foster (on right) started the center.

Alabama A&M

Beyond all that, Foster also became a small-town political leader whose influence was felt throughout Alabama. He led the effort to restore the long-forgotten charter of Triana, a once-dying black enclave of fewer than 100 families outside Huntsville. Foster served as Triana’s mayor for two decades, and his work became a model for other tiny, mostly black towns in Alabama that took control of their political lives.

“There is no other African American NASA employee who did more to get jobs for black people, to get advancement for black people and to get young people working at NASA. No one did more than Clyde Foster,” said Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book about the first African Americans who worked in the space program. “On top of that, you have his entire political career, which is also groundbreaking. The man’s accomplishments are absolutely heroic.”

Foster, who was 86 when he died in 2017, was no doubt a hero, but one who most people outside Alabama had never heard of. By all accounts, he never protested, picketed or sat in. Yet he improved many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black lives in a state where the law sanctioned blatant and often violent efforts to discount them.

“He just loved people. He wanted people to have a chance,” his widow, Dorothy Foster, 84, said in an interview. “He just wanted to help everybody. He was not the kind of activist you read about. He felt he could help blacks more by getting them employment than by getting out there and marching in the street.”

Foster was born in Birmingham in 1931, the sixth of 12 children. He went to the city’s public schools, which were segregated, as was every other public institution and accommodation in town.

“There were two sets of everything, one for the colored and one for the white,” Foster said in a 2008 interview with Paul for a radio documentary called Race and the Space Race. “Signs were posted on water fountains, restrooms.” Police harassment was a constant threat. “Whenever they would see a group of black kids assembled together, there was always some reason to go after them.”

A 1942 photograph of the Foster family: Back row, from left: Betty Foster (Berry), James Foster, James’s wife Elizabeth Foster, Clyde Foster, Dorothy Foster (Sweatt), Otis Foster, Ann Foster (Sweatt), Fred Foster. Front row, from left: David Foster, Katie Foster (Rodgers), Clyde’s father, James Foster, Clyde’s mother, Effie Foster, Geraldine Foster (Franklin), Eddie Foster.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster thought the best way to insulate himself from the many perils of being black in Alabama was through education. He had always been a good student, and he ended up going to Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. At the time, he had his eye on a teaching career.

While still in college, Foster crossed paths with Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V-2 rocket. Built with concentration camp slave labor, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, and the Nazis used it to rain death on the Allies during World War II. Von Braun later came to the United States with a group of about 125 German scientists, engineers and technicians who had been captured by American soldiers. Rather than prosecute them, U.S. authorities enlisted the German scientists to develop missiles, and later spacecraft, for America.

Much of that work, the backbone of the nation’s space program, was located in the Deep South, and it began at a time when harsh segregation reigned. NASA rockets were developed under von Braun in northern Alabama, tested in rural Mississippi, manufactured in Louisiana, launched from Cape Canaveral in central Florida and monitored from Houston.

With this new mission, von Braun was quickly transformed from a warrior for the supposed Aryan master race into an advocate for science education so he could build a skilled workforce to support the space program. Perhaps not fully understanding racial dynamics in his new home, he came to all-black Alabama A&M early on for help. Von Braun wrote a script about his plans for the space program in Alabama, including the then-fanciful dream of flying men to the moon, and he asked Foster and several of his classmates to read it during an assembly at an all-white high school. It was never clear why von Braun chose to have black A&M students deliver his message to white students, and Foster later told interviewers the assembly was a flop. But the unusual encounter introduced Foster to a wondrous new industry that would eventually change his life.

Foster graduated from A&M in 1954 and was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years. He and Dorothy had met and married while in college, and when Foster came back to Alabama after completing his military commitment, he got a job teaching high school science near Selma in the central part of the state. Dorothy had remained in her hometown of Triana, and she wanted him to move back. After a year, he did.

“I told Clyde that I was going to call the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and set up an appointment for a job interview, and ‘You’re going,’ ” Dorothy recalled with a laugh. “And he did.”

Foster is seen here in the Army. He landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957.

Courtesy of Foster Family

Foster landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957. The agency, headed by von Braun, was located at the Redstone Arsenal, a military installation in Huntsville that would later house NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Foster was hired as part of a large team of people who crunched the numbers generated by gauges inside missiles and rocket engines during test flights. Their analysis allowed engineers to calculate wind resistance, the thrust of a rocket and its proper trajectory. NASA was formed a year after Foster started, and in 1960 he went to work for the new space agency.

Foster saw a bright future for himself at NASA. Working for the federal government was about as good as it got for a black man in Alabama. The pay was decent, and racial discrimination was illegal on federal property. Also, with the Kennedy administration pressing NASA to integrate the thousands of new jobs created by the space race, von Braun emerged as an advocate for integration. The New York Times once called him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” Von Braun himself said the space age would belong to “those who can shed the shackles of the past.”

Outside the gates of Marshall, however, Alabama was still Alabama.

George Wallace, who had lost the 1958 governor’s race in part because he was perceived as insufficiently harsh when it came to race, took office as governor in 1963. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The next year, Wallace tried to back up his words by standing in the doorway of an auditorium at the University of Alabama in what was ultimately a vain attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling.

Foster and the handful of other African Americans among the thousands of employees at Marshall were inevitably harmed by that racism. Employees looking to move up had to take training classes, but many of those classes were off-limits to blacks because they were held off base at hotels and other segregated public facilities. Foster once took a telemetry course in Atlanta, but he had to stay at what he called a “fly-by-night” hotel miles from the training center. Still, he told interviewers, he never missed a session.

A few years after he started at NASA, Foster was angered by a supervisor’s request to train a white co-worker to be his boss. He refused the request and then complained to higher-ranking NASA officials about the situation black workers faced. He demanded training programs that black workers could readily take advantage of. Soon a deal was struck: NASA would hold separate training sessions for black workers at Alabama A&M, often importing instructors from out of town. It was an odd compromise: segregated training classes when the country was moving to root out segregation. But it was the best Foster could do. More than 100 black employees eventually took advantage of the separate-but-equal NASA training, which would prove to be the foundation of Foster’s legacy at NASA.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 21, 1931, Foster graduated from Parker High School in Birmingham in 1950 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Chemistry from Alabama A&M College in 1954.

NASA/MSFC

“I would say his most significant contribution to NASA directly would be the training program,” said Steven Moss, the other co-author of We Could Not Fail. “He made it so black workers did not have to jump through all the hoops that others before them did. Then, later, he helped so many people get jobs. As I talked to people at other NASA facilities in the Deep South, you can kind of see the family tree. They would trace who they work for, or who helped them, and it always came back to Clyde Foster.”

Even though Foster did not work in personnel, NASA would tap him to travel to colleges around the country to recruit African Americans trained in science or engineering to come work at Marshall. It was not easy for NASA to attract skilled white employees to Alabama, given the state’s horrible reputation for racial violence. It was even harder for Foster to attract black workers.

“I would tell [recruits] Huntsville was really not as bad … as the image George Wallace was given,” Foster said in a 1990 interview for a NASA oral history. “I told them, ‘Now, if you really wanted the challenge, good discipline, the space program has it for you.’ ”

The black scientists, engineers and technicians who did join NASA found Foster to be a willing mentor, no matter whether he had recruited them.

James Jennings was a math major at A&M when he met Foster, who was a regular presence at his alma mater in the mid-1960s. At the time, Jennings was about 20, and he looked up to Foster, who was in his mid-30s. Jennings took some computer classes that ignited his interest in working in the space program, which in those days represented the pinnacle of technological innovation. Jennings began as a co-op student at NASA and ended up spending almost four decades at the agency. He said Foster was a mentor nearly every step of the way.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

Photo by Don Rutledge courtesy of Lucy Rutledge.

“When I went to NASA, that was my first introduction into a predominantly white organization,” Jennings recalled in an interview. “I was kind of excited and apprehensive at the same time. I really didn’t know how our education would hold up, but it did not take me very long to understand that my education was on par or better than many of the white students who worked there.”

One thing that helped, he said, was Foster’s constant support. “He took me under his wing. He used to call everybody ‘Horse.’ He told me, ‘Horse, if you keep your nose clean and do your job, you could go far in this organization.’ ”

Jennings proved Foster correct, as he ended up working at NASA’s Washington headquarters in the government’s highest civil service rank before his retirement in 2005.

“Clyde always was encouraging and looked to give me opportunities for visibility,” Jennings said. “If your work is not visible to others, it is easy for your supervisor not to promote you. Clyde knew that, and he was always encouraging us to volunteer for committees and special projects.”

In an effort to create a pipeline of black workers into NASA, Foster persuaded von Braun to allow him to set up a computer science program at A&M. NASA provided grants to help get the program going, although at first Foster struggled to persuade A&M officials that it was worthwhile.

Founded in the wake of the Civil War, A&M had always focused on training students for jobs that black people could get in Jim Crow Alabama: teaching, nursing, farming and certain kinds of engineering. When Foster talked about building a computer science program to train students to send rockets to the moon, the skepticism was palpable.

“Black administrators were not interested, and they did not pursue this money because the program was there for them to develop other kinds of programs,” Foster said in the 2008 interview. “The most that we had was electronic, or electrical and mechanical engineering. [We had] civil engineering — we had to build some damn roads — but we [were] talking about building a pathway to space.”

Eventually, Foster won over the A&M officials. NASA paid Foster’s salary for two years while he worked to establish the program, which went online in 1969.

The cover of a brochure for the Computer Science Center at was then called Alabama A&M College. Foster started the bachelor’s degree program in computer science.

Alabama A&M

“Everything he did, I think he realized he was making a difference,” Jennings said of Foster. “But he was not the kind of person looking to take credit for it.”

In the late 1970s, Foster took a job in NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which got him away from the technical heart of the agency but gave him more leverage to help black people get a leg up.

“I thought I could make an even greater contribution to increase the workforce to a more integrated workforce,” Foster said in the 1990 interview. Foster was director of Marshall’s EEO office when he retired from NASA in 1987.

His advocacy did not stop at work. Foster served on Alabama’s Commission on Higher Education, to which he was first appointed by Wallace in 1974. That was besides his groundbreaking work as the mayor of Triana. His work to re-establish the town’s charter cleared the way for Triana to receive federal grants for a series of major upgrades, including building the town’s first water system, installing its first streetlights, paving its gravel streets and renovating the town hall, which previously had been a coal-heated shack.

Following Foster’s example, about a dozen African American towns were able to reincorporate and, in some cases, make similarly dramatic improvements. The new political control also allowed a generation of black mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs and other local officials to gain experience in office.

Decades later, Foster led the legal fight against a chemical company that had poisoned the town’s waterways with DDT, resulting in a $24 million settlement for Triana residents.

Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.

“If I hadn’t had these experiences early in life to cross over into these areas: political, education, business,” he said. “All of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.”

This article is being published in collaboration with American Experience/WGBH as part of its series “Chasing the Moon,” which examines the scientific, political and personal dramas behind the space race on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. PBS will broadcast a film across three nights starting at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on July 8. Short digital films, articles, timelines and comics, including pieces on the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, the desegregation of Huntsville, and the Poor People’s Campaign protest at the Kennedy Space Center, can be found here.

Zion in Atlanta would be a win for the culture The Hawks landing the No. 1 pick is a long shot. But Williamson would be a good match with the young, disruptive culture of The A.

Don’t try to tease Atlanta with a good time. It is, after all, the city that birthed the phrase “turn up.” Whose residents bear the name of a genre-shifting rap album (ATLiens). Where the nightlife has long been the script of urban legends. Come Tuesday evening, the city will await the results of the most important non-Powerball sweepstakes in recent memory: the NBA draft lottery — or, as it’s otherwise known, the right to draft Zion Williamson.

Landing Williamson is a long shot. (The Atlanta Hawks have a 10.5 percent chance of acquiring the top pick, good for fifth behind New York, Phoenix, Cleveland and Chicago.) That hasn’t stopped ATLiens from wishing upon a lemon pepper wet wing, of course. But Williamson and Atlanta differ from, say, LeBron James and Cleveland because Atlanta doesn’t need Williamson to reroute the city’s future. Atlanta is the best cultural destination for Williamson because this majority-black metropolis is already the mecca for black excellence, a modern-day mashup of the Harlem Renaissance and Sweet Home Chicago.

“Cleveland had their moment with LeBron. New York’s always had [the hoopla]. But it’s Atlanta’s time. We’re welcoming of new, young and talented people,” said Larry Luk, a Hawks enthusiast and head of brand at Localeur, a crowd-sourced recommendation platform for travelers. “Zion Williamson fits that mold.”

Williamson’s pedigree is public knowledge. He was a high school cheat code whose mixtapes gave him a Lil Wayne-like aura. His one season at Duke University only added to the anticipation and debate surrounding his future. He was the talk of the town at this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend. He’s been compared to James in terms of hype and to Charles Barkley, Blake Griffin and Larry Johnson as far as body type and athleticism. By season’s end, Williamson became only the third freshman to win the John R. Wooden Award, given to the country’s best player, and the third freshman in the last 20 seasons, along with Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, to amass 500 points, 50 blocks and 50-plus steals. Williamson’s every step (and shoe explosion) is a modern-day Truman Show.

For decades, New York was the most important place for America’s black culture, the site of the Harlem Renaissance, home court to both Malcolm X and Dapper Dan and the birthplace of hip-hop. But from Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement to its rise to the apex of hip-hop’s leaderboard in the late ’90s and early 2000s, “The A” has reached a cultural zenith. LaFace Records, which introduced household names such as TLC, Usher, Jermaine Dupri, Ciara, Outkast and others, helped craft the sounds of both rap and rhythm and blues not in New York or Los Angeles. Andre 3000’s proclamation, “The South got something to say!” at the 1995 Source Awards is widely accepted as the most prophetic statement in rap history. Freaknik, the Atlanta-based spring break phenomenon, became black America’s most fabled party.

“It’s funny answering [why Williamson fits culturally],” said longtime Hawks fan and Atlanta hip-hop historian Maurice Garland, “because Atlanta’s culture is already pretty solid.”

Tory Edwards is an Atlanta-based filmmaker whose credits include work on Selma, Being Mary Jane, the Raw Report street DVDs and the 2014 documentary ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game. He’s also one-fourth of 404-derived civic and content collective Atlanta Influences Everything. He says bringing Williamson to Atlanta makes sense for one symbiotic reason: The city has always had one constant in its pursuit of cultural dominance — disruption.

“Just like Atlanta, who he is and what he represents is disruption,” Edwards said. Williamson is “something fresh and aggressive, and I believe Atlanta is going through its own renaissance.”

The city’s music scene reads like a list of high school superlatives: The aforementioned Ciara, Outkast, Dupri, Usher and TLC, plus Dungeon Family, Monica, T.I., Gucci Mane, Childish Gambino, Travis Porter, The-Dream, Goodie Mob, Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, 21 Savage, Pastor Troy, Ludacris, Future, Young Jeezy, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, Migos and countless others.

The film industry, in almost a reverse gold rush, has planted flags in Atlanta. ATL, which starred natives T.I. and Big Boi as well as Lauren London, was a 2006 coming-of-age-in-Atlanta film that used one of its storied landmarks, the Cascade Skating Rink, to establish its local legitimacy nationwide. In 2016, more feature films were shot in Georgia than in California — Time magazine dubbed Atlanta Hollywood’s “Southern campus.” More recently, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, in just two seasons, is already a generationally important series. Its nightlife scene, spearheaded by strip clubs such as Magic City and Blue Flame, has given the metropolis an independent identity.

Zion Williamson drives in for a dunk against St. John’s during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 02, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 91-61.

Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

But beyond that, and perhaps what Edwards sees as a natural fit for the Southern-born Williamson, is its youthful energy. From black painters such as Fahamu Pecou to Orchestra Noir (which held court at Cardi B’s baby shower), an active and aggressive arts scene not only lives in Atlanta, it’s thriving.

“I think Atlanta just continues to disrupt culture and influence the world,” Edwards said. “I think Zion is a perfect match.”

“From an art and fashion standpoint, we haven’t really had a guy in town that had a signature sneaker that anyone cared about wearing since [Deion Sanders’ Nike Air Diamond Turfs],” said Luk. “Zion’s signature shoe in Atlanta would be worn by everyone if he was a Hawk, including myself.”

With a 1,000-watt smile and a forthcoming sneaker deal that’s expected to shatter anything before it, Williamson is already his own economy. And if there’s one city that appreciates the black dollar, it’s Atlanta.

“What I’ve noticed is a lot of young black entrepreneurs budding in Atlanta,” said ATL-based blogger and Spelman alumna Jameelah Johnson. “There’s so many ideas and so many young people. It’s the colleges that are here, like Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta,” as well as Georgia State and Georgia Tech. “It’s just amazing how much talent and knowledge there is for young people.”

Andre 3000 (left) and Big Boi (right) of Outkast perform onstage at the ONE Musicfest on Sept. 10, 2016, in Atlanta.

Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Rooting for Atlanta sports teams hasn’t been the easiest job in the world. The city is still haunted by the Falcons’ Super Bowl loss in 2017. (Seriously, don’t say, “28-3” in many places. It’s still too soon.) In the 1980s, Dominique Wilkins, “The Human Highlight Film,” was one of the most exciting players in the NBA. But the team hasn’t won an NBA title since 1958, when it was based in St. Louis. In the ’90s, Deion Sanders and Andre Rison made the Falcons the hottest ticket in town (although the team finally advanced to its first Super Bowl in 1999 with Jamal Anderson and Terance Mathis). The Braves had a majority-black infield and outfield in the ’90s that was hugely popular in Atlanta’s black community.

The city has been brutally criticized for its sports apathy. But that narrative is being rewritten by the new MLS franchise with its attendance numbers north of 70,000, recruitment of fans of color and a commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity. Last year, Atlanta United FC captured the city’s first professional title since the Braves won the 1995 World Series.

Even the slim chance of the Hawks landing the top spot in June’s draft is building Hawks fervor. “This city is dying for a superstar,” said DJ X-Rated, who works at several spots, including Allure, Magic City and XS.

“If Zion were to come to the Hawks, that would probably be the biggest thing since Dominique as far as a real star is here. Not just a good player, but a person that has real star power,” Garland agreed. “To a degree, Trae Young is that right now. This is the most I’ve ever seen Hawks basketball talked about in a long time, and we didn’t even win a damn thing.”

John Collins (left) and Trae Young (right) of the Atlanta Hawks shake hands after a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Feb. 27.

Photo by Jasear Thompson/NBAE via Getty Images

The Hawks finished this season 29-53, a five-win improvement over last year’s campaign. Young, a Rookie of the Year finalist, and second-year forward John Collins are already one of the league’s more exciting tandems, with both averaging nearly 20 points per game for the season. Kevin Huerter, who also just completed his rookie season, shot 38 percent from 3-point range — and won the respect of the recently retired Dwyane Wade.

A different energy pumped through the veins of State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta this season. Part of it had to do with the commitment to providing a different experience, with restaurants such as the city’s famed J.R. Crickets, a courtside bar and even Killer Mike’s barbershop. At the base of the excitement, though, was the product on the court.

“It’s like, ‘Oh … we got [one of] the leading scorers from college last year on the team [in Young]. It was exciting things happening,” said Garland.

“When [the Hawks] started clicking at the end of the season, it got crazy. They would lose games, but it wasn’t like they were really losing. You could see what they were putting out there,” said Johnson. “You’re like, ‘Wow, this team could actually do something. And they’re still young.’ So to see something like that is just inspiring.”

From left to right: Lakeith Stanfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks and Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles from Atlanta.

Matthias Clamer/FX

In an Atlanta version of utopia, Young leads fast breaks for years to come with Huerter sprinting to the corner, Collins flanked on one wing and Williamson on the other. “How do you defend that?” Johnson said with a laugh. “No, seriously, where do you go?”

The answer to that last question for Atlanta fans is easy: to the game. Not since James in 2003 has there been a player with more intoxicating potential and every-household marketability. Williamson is the first high school megastar of the Instagram era to surpass the unrealistic level of expectations — at least so far. College basketball ratings were up 15 percent this season on ESPN and 30 percent for Duke, in large part because of Williamson. Jay-Z, James and former President Barack Obama were all seated courtside within a month of each other to see the show in person.

“He’s the first athlete to really grow up like that in the social media spotlight from a young’un. If you’re on Instagram, you were like, at one point, ‘Who’s this dude dunking on all these little white kids, man?!’ ” said Garland. “Even rappers that may not even be big sports fans, they know who dude is. This is the dude Drake was riding hard for.”

Even those just marginally attracted to the pageantry will be tuning in Tuesday night. It’s not a matter of getting too excited before an inevitable letdown. With potentially two top-10 picks this year, Atlanta is in perhaps the best win-win scenario in the lottery. But the ultimate prize is No. 1 — Williamson’s jersey number and the draft position. “If [Williamson] comes here, everybody is gonna come,” says Edwards. “The city’s coming up.”

Still, it’s not as if Atlanta needs Zion Williamson to establish itself. And it’s not as if the Hawks need Zion Williamson either. ATLiens acknowledge what he can do for them. But they also know what the city, the culture and the creativity here can do for Williamson.

“Atlanta is the perfect breeding place for young talent,” Johnson said. “You just have people here trying to start new things. It’s the perfect place for someone like [Williamson] to come and to start his career.”

An oversized backboard and basketball hoop are seen on a billboard in front of the Atlanta City skyline during practice prior to the NCAA Men’s Final Four at the Georgia Dome on April 5, 2013 in Atlanta.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

For Beyoncé’s Homecoming scholars, their scholarships were lifesavers Her commitment and love for HBCUs comes from growing up around top bands

Her honey blond hair was like a halo of gold under the stage lights.

An Egyptian cape wrapped around her body. She mesmerized the audience.

Once the whistle blew, Coachella’s music festival and the lives of eight students attending historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) changed forever.

Beyoncé’s groundbreaking performance at the 2018 desert concert paid homage to HBCUs by showcasing black culture and talent. “When I decided to do Coachella, instead of me pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella,” Beyoncé said in her Netflix film Homecoming.

Beyoncé made history for being the first black woman to headline Coachella. During that performance, she announced the Homecoming Scholarship Awards Program under her BeyGood initiative. She offered $25,000 each to students at Xavier University in Louisiana, Grambling State University, Tuskegee University, Morehouse College, Wilberforce University, Texas Southern University, Fisk University and Bethune-Cookman University.

I attend Xavier and I was one of the recipients. And I’m graduating on May 11!

It felt like just yesterday I was dancing in the living room with my father as Beyoncé performed “Love On Top” at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. We both smiled at each other, in awe of Beyoncé’s talent as a visionary and entertainer. Every time we heard her voice over the radio or when we blasted her music in our house, it gave us goose bumps. My dad and I always connected through music. When he died my junior year in high school from cancer, I was in disbelief. But it was Beyoncé’s music and presence that taught me to stay strong and that no dream of mine was too big.

I decided to leave my hometown of Boston and attend Xavier University of Louisiana to reconnect with my dad’s roots and carry on his legacy in New Orleans, where he grew up. My dad taught me how to write and reminded me that everyone has a story to be told. When I stepped foot on my HBCU campus, I hit the ground running by getting involved in journalism.

Two years ago, I had the chance to meet Beyoncé at a party that her sister Solange was hosting for NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. I thanked Beyoncé for her music and for getting me through losing my dad. She responded, “I’m so sorry for your loss, and thank you for being such a supportive fan.”

With each passing year, it became increasingly difficult for my newly single mom to cover the cost of my out-of-state tuition. But last summer, my worries faded away. I was interning in the sports department at the Tampa Bay Times and saw the news on Twitter. I saw a “Congratulations” tweet and realized I was one of the winners. I was speechless, and couldn’t believe the announcement was real.

The outpouring from the public was something I had never seen before on my social media. Other recipients said they felt that same love. The Tuskegee winner, Caleb Washington, screamed when she saw the news on Twitter. She was interning at Goldman Sachs.

Washington transferred from the University of West Alabama during her junior year. She played basketball and was on an athletic scholarship. But she gave it up, the sport and the scholarship, to focus on getting into law school.

“The Beyoncé scholarship was like a safe haven because it replaced the athletic scholarship,” she said. “Tuskegee has prepared me through the trials and triumphs of operating and managing your day-to-day. At an HBCU, it prepares you for corporate life.”

When Washington watched Beyoncé’s performance, she felt that it was an honor to be black. “I felt so proud. In a sense, I felt validated to be a soon-an-HBCU grad and be part of this culture,” Washington said.

If it wasn’t for Beyoncé’s scholarship, recipient Cletus Emokpae said, he would have not received his master’s degree in mass communication and would have been homeless. The Grambling State alumnus got into a car accident the day before he heard the scholarship news.

“I called my mom and broke down and cried because she understood, after a while you get tired of always having to struggle,” he said. “At what point does the grind start to really showcase the fruits of your labor?”

For Emokpae, this scholarship finally showed him that his hard work was paying off. When he first got to Grambling, he could not afford housing.

“One of my professors took me in just so I had a place to stay to get my work done,” he said.

“People can say a lot about Gram Fam, but when it comes down to it, when you need somebody, they will be there for you. No questions asked.”

By attending an HBCU, “it’s like a homecoming every day,” he said. Emokpae was proud to see how Beyoncé incorporated a band into her performance.

“People don’t even go to the football games for the football games anymore. They really go to see the bands,” he said. “And the bands at HBCUs are really like the pulse for a lot of these campuses. It runs deep.”

Beyoncé explains in her documentary that she handpicked her band members and dancers to make sure it felt like a homecoming, her HBCU.

“I wanted all of these different characters, and I wanted it to feel the way I felt when I went to Battle of the Bands, because I grew up seeing those shows, and that being the highlight of my year,” Beyoncé said. Her father attended Fisk University, and as a young artist she mentioned that she grew up rehearsing at Texas Southern and Prairie View.

Beyoncé has touched so many lives through her music, projects and philanthropy and as a businesswoman altogether. From this scholarship alone, one woman impacted eight different lives. As a result, we will always be connected and grateful for her support.

Homecoming has only increased my respect for Beyoncé. I continue to sing her songs that I used to belt out with my dad as a little girl. The only difference is, he’s looking over me as my guardian angel.

An ode to ‘Jet’ magazine’s ‘Beauty of the Week’ Parent company Johnson Publishing filed for bankruptcy last week

This was the point, my dad once told me, that I knew you were interested in women.

I was 6 years old, waiting for a haircut from our regular barber, Clarence. (To this day, I don’t know Clarence’s last name. He is my Cher.) My older brother and I took out about 20 of the pocket-sized weekly magazines, lined them up in a row and flipped each to Page 43 — it was almost always Page 43. We probably didn’t even need the table of contents; we knew exactly what we were looking for.

We found out on our own that we liked girls right there in between the pages of Jet magazine, in “Beauty of the Week.”

On April 9, Johnson Publishing Co., which published Jet magazine and its sister publication Ebony magazine from the 1940s until 2016, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois, effectively ending the black-centric publisher’s 77-year run.

In 2016, Johnson Publishing sold Jet and Ebony to private equity firm Clear View Group. Last week’s filing will not affect either of those publications. Nevertheless, the fate of Johnson Publishing brought back thoughts of “Beauty of the Week,” which placed just ahead of professional wrestling and Power Rangers on the Family Feud-like board of my pastimes.

Your level of fondness for “Beauty of the Week,” the magazine’s famous section dedicated to black women decked out in swimsuits, depends on your perspective.

For some black men, it was somewhere between adoration of the black female body … and Lawd Have Mercy. Whether on the bus, in the barbershop, on the end table at your grandmother’s house or even in prison cells, from teenagers to middle-aged men, some among us went straight to the centerfold of Jet as soon as we set our eyes on the pint-size glossy cover. Black boys and men (and women, too) ogled the pretty brown-skinned women with the voluptuous curves and breathtaking smiles. And while it wasn’t Penthouse or Maxim’s Hot 100, Johnson Publishing exploited black bodies and sexuality, sometimes printing photos that straddled the line between tasteful and lustful.

At the same time, “Beauty of the Week” brought black female bodies into the mainstream, said Cornell University professor Noliwe M. Rooks, whose research focuses on beauty, race and fashion. As a pushback against pinup girls in other magazines of the early 20th century, Johnson Publishing founder John H. Johnson created a domain for black women and their sexuality. These images were a sharp contrast to the all-white bodies presented in other publications. And though Jet was never known for featuring plus-size women, its models came in different colors, sizes and shapes — the antithesis of the blond bombshell.

“They’re not stick figures,” Rooks said.

Stick figures they were not. At the time, I was way too young to understand the meaning of sex or even what it was, but I could somehow recognize black beauty (among other things) and how it differed from other suggestive images on television. Sure, there were the hidden dirty magazines around the shop of my dad’s trucking company, or the always-weakened-signaled Channels 32 and 33 on the “black box,” but I just knew there was something different about the women on the 5 1/8-by-7 3/8-inch pieces of paper.

Former Jet editor-in-chief Mira Lowe came to the publication during its twilight in 2007 but grew up reading the magazine, admiring the risks Johnson Publishing was willing to take with black women featured so prominently on its covers and throughout its pages. Before Jet and Ebony, black women simply didn’t appear on magazine covers. Vogue (1974), Glamour (1968), Life (1969) and Playboy (1971) didn’t put black women on their covers until almost 20 years after Jet’s first issue in 1951.

“Jet helped with the penetration in the black community,” Lowe said. “[It] laid the groundwork and was the pioneer to what we see today in mainstream magazines.”

Johnson Publishing featured black women prominently on its covers and between its pages through the years.

Jet Magazine

Dudley Brooks, who was Jet and Ebony’s photo director from 2007 to 2014, said Jet was forward-thinking at the time in choosing to showcase black women in a way they hadn’t been before.

The early incarnation of “Beauty of the Week” debuted in 1952 in the centerfold. One of the first models was Florida-born Ruth King, who was working a clerical job in a New York City court when she appeared in the Aug. 14 issue. As would come to be Jet’s trademark, King’s full-page portrait was accompanied by a short bio and body size measurements that Sir Mix-a-Lot would rap about some 40 years later.

Outside of King, it wasn’t just aspiring models looking to be the next “It” girl appearing in “Beauty of the Week.” There were women majoring in speech at historically black colleges and universities, beauty consultants from California, and aspiring politicians and musicians. There was Beverly the waitress, Denise the inhalation therapist and Noni, who liked to deep-sea fish and Jet Ski. These women were everyday girls who were given the opportunity to show the world what “normal” looks like.

But there were also those who used “Beauty of the Week” as a launching pad. Former television personality and author Janet Langhart Cohen graced the section in 1966. She told Jet in 1986 that it’s “where I got my start.” Ja’net Dubois, who played wisecracking neighbor Willona Woods on Good Times, appeared in 1977. The most famous of the bunch was blaxploitation film actress Pam Grier, who was set to star in 1971’s The Big Doll House when she posed for the magazine in a two-piece bathing suit in Chicago.

“I think it was just after I finished Black Mama White Mama, and things were starting to blow up, and they said, ‘You’ve got to do Jet and Ebony,’ ” Grier told The Undefeated in 2016. “You can see I am so rough. I just seemed not like the beauties of today: toned and tanned and shiny. I was ashy, no makeup, my hair was all over the place.”

While “Beauty of the Week” was an opportunity to uplift and portray black women in a non-disrespectful manner, at the end of the day it was what it was.

“It was eye candy,” said Brooks, now the deputy director of photography at The Washington Post. “Things that used to be considered normal or accepted widely years ago move on.”

The women, for the most part, were photographed solely in swimsuits and, from 1959-93, were accompanied by their body measurements.

The photos have been called a “quick dose of random, incongruous cheesecake” meant to offset the more serious news stories in the magazine, no more obvious than in 1955 when Jet published the gruesome images from Emmett Till’s funeral just 26 pages ahead of 15-year-old Judith Stewart in a two-piece bathing suit.

The merits of presenting black women in next to no clothing can be argued every day of the week, but, at the same time, the editors and art directors appeared ahead of their time in the mid-20th century, showcasing women of various skin tones, waist sizes and hair lengths. A 2011 research study found that Jet presents “a larger female body size ideal … contrary to mainstream Caucasian media’s practices,” which may reflect a “broader definition of female attractiveness.” From Saartjie Baartman to former first lady Michelle Obama to Serena Williams, black women’s bodies have been ridiculed, mocked and simultaneously ignored for centuries, but Jet (and older publications such as Tan) had the audacity to put black women front and center for the world to see.

There’s not much I remember about my childhood. I vaguely recall learning to ride my bike or almost getting lost at a Six Flags theme park or dressing up for Halloween. But “Beauty of the Week” is one of those things that sits in the back of your memory, never being forgotten. I haven’t picked up a physical copy of the magazine since the early 2000s, but I can envision being in my grandparents’ living room as everyone else watched television, wading through the first 42 pages of the latest Jet, anticipating which pretty woman I’d get to see that week, like an adult L.O.L. Surprise! doll box. (Jet switched to a digital-only operation in 2014 and hasn’t posted a “Beauty of the Week” on its website in more than a year.)

When I was commissioned to write this story, I was told by my editor to keep it classy and tasteful. But crossing that line never crossed my mind. “Beauty of the Week” didn’t make me the man I am today, in that clichéd kind of way, but I can say without a doubt that it helped me learn to appreciate and respect black women and their bodies.

And now, the dissolution of Johnson Publishing means a part of Jet’s soul is gone forever.

And with it, a part of my adolescence.

Oscars recap: ‘Green Book’s’ side-eye, Regina King and Spike Lee’s one shining moment Hollywood’s biggest night was filled with surprising winners and snubs

Call it prophetic. Call it coincidence. But whatever you do, call it black. On Feb. 24, 1999, Lauryn Hill made Grammys history by walking away with five awards, including the most prestigious for album of the year for her groundbreaking album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Exactly 20 years to the day, black actors, actresses and films captured a smorgasbord of awards at the 91st Academy Awards in Los Angeles.

True indeed this has been a Black History Month for the ages (not in a good way). Nevertheless, Sunday night’s Oscars presentation is worth discussing for several reasons: In an ideal world, Kendrick Lamar and SZA would’ve performed their Grammy and Oscar-nominated smash record “All The Stars.” Black Panther, Marvel Studios’ first Oscar winner, capturing best picture in the same parallel universe — which seemed all but a certainty off the strength of the mass hysteria it was causing this time last year. It was even featured in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest!

Speaking of best picture, though, that brings us to the first of three highlights of the evening’s festivities.

1. Green Book, really? Here’s the thing. Salute to Mahershala Ali — one of the great actors of his generation and unquestionably a class act. Yet, Green Book winning best picture will be one of the more debated Oscars forever. But, tied for the second most awards of the night with three, Book comes off as a shell of a winner. Especially when you take into account that Ali apologized to the family of Don Shirley (whom he portrayed in the film).

Spike Lee was reportedly so upset by the award that he stormed out of the venue, but then came back. For Lee, it likely brought back memories of Do The Right Thing not being nominated for best picture at the 1990 Oscars — the award that went to Driving Miss Daisy.

Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman were better films with decidedly better reviews and decidedly larger cultural impact. Nevertheless, this isn’t an indictment of Ali. But don’t be surprised if years down the road the now multiple-Oscar winner speaks his true feelings on the film.

2. One time for Spike. Consider it one of those “wait … what?” black history facts. Like Shaquille O’Neal only having one MVP award. Or Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and Jimi Hendrix having a combined zero Grammys. But before Sunday night, legendary filmmaker Lee had never won an Oscar. (And, yes, Malcolm X never winning an Oscar is Hollywood’s equivalent of Roy Jones Jr. being robbed of a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics — which Lee ironically did a documentary all about and through.)

Lee’s BlacKkKlansman won best adapted screenplay and he accepted it dressed in purple in honor of Prince and rocking LOVE and HATE knuckle rings in remembrance of the late Bill Nunn’s Radio Raheem character from Do The Right Thing. Lee launched into an emotional acceptance speech — he paid homage to his enslaved ancestors, his grandmother and even indigenous tribes who had their land stripped out from under them. In other words, it was Spike Lee going full Spike Lee. And to be quite honest, he deserved that moment.

3. And one time for Regina King. Maybe it’s because my introduction to her was Iesha in 1993’s Poetic Justice. Or maybe it’s because her pulling double duty in one of the truly impactful series of our time in The Boondocks. Whatever the case, King winning awards and being lathered with exorbitant amounts of praise is the sort of black history we could all stand to bask in. She won best supporting actress Sunday night for her role in If Beale Street Could Talk — a victory made all the more impressive given the loaded field of Amy Adams (Vice), Rachel Weisz (The Favourite) Marina de Tavira (Roma) and Emma Stone (The Favourite). With the award, King became the eighth black woman to be bestowed with the honor, and it’s one she didn’t take lightly. Her emotionally charged acceptance speech thanked the late James Baldwin, whose book inspired the Barry Jenkins-directed masterpiece (which was noticeably absent from the best picture category … but that’s another debate for another time). “I feel like I’ve had so many women that paved the way, are paving the way,” King said. “I feel like I walk in their light, and I also am creating my own light, and there are young women who will walk in the light that I’m continuing to shine and expand from those women before me.” She’s a generational talent spanning multiple generations with range perhaps best described as embarrassingly dynamic. Give King all the awards. Because it’s not like she doesn’t deserve them anyway.

Instagram Photo

4. HBCU connect. Morehouse College’s own Lee made sure to pay homage to his Spelman College-educated grandmother in that long-awaited academy speech. And Hampton University’s Ruth Carter became the first black person to win the Oscar for best costume design. Saying it felt like homecoming is a reach. But historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) played a role in stomping the yard at Sunday night’s show.

Michael Jordan visits a North Carolina sneaker store that has a community-based mission ‘When you drop a Jordan, to get MJ to walk through the door … is crazy’

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — There was an inkling that he’d come, but no one knew for sure. We’re talking, after all, about the greatest basketball player of all time. But Michael Jordan arrived bright and early, with coffee in hand, to sneaker boutique Social Status. There in the Plaza Midwood area of his city, Jordan was greeted by store owner James Whitner, who might be just as important to the local community as MJ.

Why? Well, Whitner opened his first sneaker store, Flava Factory, in Charlotte in 2005, a year after a gunshot wound he suffered during a street fight nearly ended his life. By 2007, Whitner had launched Social Status, which has emerged as one of the best shoe and streetwear retailers in the country, having expanded to six more cities: Atlanta; Houston; Greensboro and Raleigh, North Carolina; Pittsburgh; and Tampa, Florida. And now, Social Status has its own Air Jordan, which the man whose name is on it came to see for himself.

Instagram Photo

“It wasn’t like a secret, come-through-the-back-and-show-love type of thing,” Whitner said. “He came through the front door, froze and shocked the crowd. You can’t write a release better than that. When you drop a Jordan, to get MJ to walk through the door … is crazy. It goes down in the record books.”

It was three days before the All-Star Game, and folks lined up to cop the limited-edition Social Status x Air Jordan 6, one of several pairs of sneakers released by Jordan Brand for basketball’s biggest weekend. The collection tells the story of Jordan’s journey through his home state, from an Air Jordan 5 in his high school colors to a University of North Carolina-themed women’s Air Jordan 1 and a retro of the “Infrared” Air Jordan 6 that His Airness wore in the 1991 All-Star Game in Charlotte.

“The goal of the shoe was to just celebrate MJ and his legacy.”

The most distinctive of the bunch is without question Social Status’ rendition of the Air Jordan 6, designed with pony hair and reptile print as an homage to Jordan’s “Black Cat” alter ego. It’s a collaboration that’s been years in the making.

“The goal of the shoe was to just celebrate MJ and his legacy,” Whitner said. “Him as the greatest player to play the game means a lot for us. … I felt like we needed to wave a flag for the city through MJ.” With the superspecial Air Jordan 6, Social Status delivered quite the tribute to Jordan, whom Whitner first met in 2015 while helping Jordan’s son Marcus open Trophy Room, a boutique in Florida inspired by the space at the family’s residence where the Hall of Famer stores his awards.

Conversations began between Social Status and the Jordan Brand about cooking something up for 2017 All-Star Weekend, which was originally scheduled to take place in Charlotte but was moved to New Orleans because of the NBA’s objection to North Carolina’s House Bill 2 that limited anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. By May 2017, the NBA announced that the game would return to Charlotte in 2019.

Jordan Brand

“The delay gave us time to create a better experience,” Whitner said. “We’re in constant conversation with the brand about how to engage the kids, the community, and stay ahead of things.”

The experience Whitner envisioned started with the release of the Social Status x Air Jordan 6, which sold out online in 14 minutes on Feb. 13. The next day, when Jordan made an appearance at the store, reservation slots to purchase the shoes opened on Nike’s SNKRS App and filled swiftly. But Whitner wanted more accessibility for the people of the Queen City.

“We wanted … to make sure everybody was treated fairly,” he said. Since the original release, Social Status has restocked the shoe online multiple times. “We held pairs over the weekend … so people could still touch, see and feel the product. … The new world of retail is connected to the consumer and connected in the community.”

Instagram Photo

Whitner also opened his store to host a design workshop for students from Charlotte within the Jordan Brand’s Wings Program. Since 2015, the initiative has provided more than 225 kids who experience financial barriers to pursuing higher education with full rides to their colleges of choice. For the workshop at Social Status, the Jordan Brand commissioned one of the most talented designers in the world, Dominic Ciambrone, who is known as The Shoe Surgeon.

The kids were also surprised by appearances from a pair of Jordan Brand athletes, LaMarcus Aldridge of the San Antonio Spurs and Blake Griffin of the Detroit Pistons. The two All-Stars joined members of the Wings Program at tables and participated in the Shoe Surgeon-led session, which involved sneaker deconstruction and sewing machine practice.

“We’ve focused a lot on the process of design. Without the process you’ll never get to where you’re going, just like in life,” Ciambrone told students during the workshop. Afterward, they were each presented with a custom pair of the newly released “Infrared” 6s. Ciambrone also encouraged the students to pick the brains of the two NBA superstars.

“Events where you get to interact with kids … they just want to have real conversations. They ask you real questions,” Griffin said. “It’s cool to speak to kids at this level and hopefully say one thing that might inspire them or make them want to keep going on the right path.”

After first signing with the Jordan Brand as a rookie in 2012, Griffin extended for another two years last fall. Aldridge has been a part of the team since 2014. “When you join the brand, you put yourself on a higher level. You hold yourself to a higher standard because MJ is the best,” Aldridge said. “We have kids that follow us and look up to us. … If you have a chance to impact their lives, help them be more positive or have a good day, that’s our job. And the Jordan Brand supports us in any way possible.”

Jordan and his brand also support people like Whitner. During 2019 All-Star Weekend, 15 years after a near-death experience that was due to gun violence, he became the first recipient of the Wings Changemaker Award.

“I thank God, sometimes three times a day,” Whitner said. “Today was probably six or seven. It’s surreal to have the opportunities that I have now. I always wanna connect to the younger kids because I wanna find the kid that was me at that age in times when I was probably in my most desperate phases in life and didn’t understand my options. I want to be able to let kids know that there are options, regardless of what walk of life you come from. For me, it’s amazing. I’m incredibly blessed.”

Instagram Photo

Whitner received a certificate similar to the one given to Wings students when they’re awarded their scholarships, as well as the first pair of the exclusive “Wings” Air Jordan 4s. They will not be for sale but instead are used to honor people who give back to their respective communities.

“The shoe is amazing … but I can’t wear it! I need two pairs — one to display and one to rock,” Whitner said. “But bigger than the shoe is the commitment I’ve received from the brand … everyone down from MJ … and the leadership to continue to help build experiences and serve the consumer. That means more to me than any tangible object they can give me. … This is the first of many things we have to come.”

Phil Freelon, America’s most prominent black architect, designs for the culture The ‘Blacksonian,’ Atlanta’s civil rights center — and a Durham bus station — are all part of his legacy

It was a brisk early afternoon in January, and I was sitting in a van in Durham, North Carolina, with Phil Freelon, arguably the most prominent working African-American architect in the country. Freelon is best known for designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other major museum projects — among them Atlanta’s National Center for Civil Rights, San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, and Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. But on this day, we were admiring, of all things, a bus station.

“If you go around the country and visit bus stations, they’re usually seedy and dirty,” he said. “But they don’t have to be.”

And the Durham Station Transportation Center, which Freelon designed, wouldn’t be out of place on the gilded campuses of Apple or Google. The center, which opened in 2008, has a glass exterior topped by a sleek metal roof sloped like a beret, covering an airy, minimalist interior lounge and ticketing area.

“In my career, I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it,” he said. “You’ll notice there’s no graffiti. Now, I don’t think everyone going to catch a bus looks around and says, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful building.’ But I think they soak in the ambiance, and I’m happy about that.”

Durham Station Transportation Center

James West/J West Productions LLC

The paradox of architecture is that it’s all around us, and yet, for many people, the profession remains esoteric. “If you have a talented young African-American, their family will likely know a lawyer, doctor, teacher or a clergyman, but not an architect,” Freelon said. “My parents, who were both college-educated, didn’t know an architect of any color, and certainly not a black one.

“Diversity is a huge problem in our profession. The profession is small — there are only 110,000 licensed architects in the United States, compared to 1 million attorneys and 800,000 physicians. And only 2 percent of architects are African-Americans, a lower ratio than with lawyers and doctors.”

Freelon, 65, has attempted to change that on several fronts: through his hiring practices, visits to predominantly minority schools to speak about his work, and the establishment in 2016 of the Freelon Fellowship, which provides financial aid so a student from an underrepresented group can attend the Harvard Graduate School of Design. And since he founded his eponymous firm in 1990, much of his work has been focused on designing libraries and other academic buildings for historically black colleges and universities and cultural projects in traditionally black neighborhoods.

Currently he’s involved with a major expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit, a mile-long open-air museum along Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles and the North Carolina Freedom Park in downtown Raleigh. “He’s designed nearly every major museum or public space dedicated to black culture in the United States,” Fast Company magazine observed when it named Freelon its Architect of the Year in 2017.

“Of course, you don’t just wake up one morning and the Smithsonian wants you to build a museum,” Freelon said. “There’s 30 years of work that leads up to that.”


Before he had ever met an architect, Freelon had decided to become one. He grew up in Philadelphia, where his mother was a school administrator and his father was a salesperson for Cordis, a Miami-based medical device manufacturer. Freelon attended Central High School, an academically rigorous, predominantly white, all-boys magnet school, which also produced the famed architect Louis Kahn. Citing the influence of his grandfather, Allan Randall Freelon Sr., a Harlem Renaissance-era painter, Freelon said he was drawn to classes in the visual arts, as well as drafting and design. He also took inspiration from his strolls through the city, visiting the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Only later,” Freelon said, “did I learn that a black architect, Julian Abele, helped design the museum,” including the iconic steps featured in Rocky.

Freelon had his mind set on attending a historically black college or university (HBCU) and enrolled at Hampton University in Virginia. “It was the height of the civil rights movement and Black Power, and I had an Afro and was very socially engaged,” he said.

Freelon plowed through the curriculum. “He was an excellent student, meticulous and curious,” said John Spencer, chairman of the architecture department, whom Freelon credits as his first mentor. Believing he would be more challenged at a larger university, Freelon transferred to North Carolina State, although he was anxious about moving deeper into the South. “When my father used to attend his company’s annual conference in Miami in the ’60s, he couldn’t stay in the downtown hotels and would stay in the black neighborhood of Overtown,” Freelon recalled. But a visit to Raleigh reassured him.

“At N.C. State, Phil and I were two of only a handful of black students at the College of Design, and there weren’t any black professors in our discipline,” recalled Percy Hooper, now an associate professor of industrial design at N.C. State. “We didn’t feel segregated from the white students, but we ended up spending a lot of time together, supporting one another.” The coursework was demanding, and there wasn’t a lot of downtime. To unwind, the friends would ride their bikes or, more ill-advisedly, toss around ninja stars.

During summers, Freelon worked for a professor at the Durham-based architectural firm of John D. Latimer and Associates and continued at the firm’s Taunton, Massachusetts, office while pursuing a master’s degree at MIT, which he completed in 1977. He worked briefly for a large firm, 3/D International in Houston, before returning to Durham to join O’Brien Atkins Associates, where he soon became the firm’s youngest partner.

“I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it.”

Freelon helped design schools, churches and other buildings around the state. “As a young architect, you’re not a specialist and you tackle a wide variety of projects.” A significant step in his career, he said, was being tapped as lead designer for Terminal 2 of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. “Of course, it’s since been demolished and rebuilt,” he said, chuckling. “At this stage of my career, there are a few buildings that I’ve designed that have been torn down.” (He later designed an award-winning parking garage at the airport, as well as the airport’s general aviation building.)

In 1989, Freelon received a fellowship to study independently for a year at Harvard. The next year, he left O’Brien Atkins to launch his own firm, the Freelon Group. It began as a one-man shop and grew to more than 50 employees, about 40 percent of whom are women and 30 percent people of color.

“When I decided to start my own practice, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do and not do,” Freelon said. “I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.” Freelon also said he had little interest in upscale residential projects, the multimillion-dollar homes that fill the pages of Dwell and Architectural Digest, the ubiquitous coffee table magazines of the aspiring bourgeoisie. “The only home I’ve ever built is my own,” he said.


Phil and Nnenna Freelon in 2015

Lissa Gotwals

One afternoon, I joined Freelon and his wife, Nnenna, at their suburban home, a 15-minute drive from downtown Durham. The modern, two-story structure with a matching separate studio space features a warm combination of concrete, steel, glass and laminate siding. The sloped lot abuts a pond and runs the length of a football field. There’s a long path from the house to a fire pit and a steel animal sculpture that the Freelons named Kareem Abdul-Giraffe.

Inside, the New Standard Quintet, a Chicago jazz group, played on the stereo while the couple’s dog, Count Basie, perched by the couch. Earlier, Freelon had told me how he met his wife. Nnenna, a Massachusetts native, was finishing her undergraduate degree at Simmons University in Boston. She was on a visit to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she was considering pursuing a graduate degree in health care administration. A mutual friend introduced them. “We met on our friend’s front porch, and for me it really was love at first sight,” Phil Freelon said. It was a swift courtship. With only her undergraduate thesis to complete, Nnenna moved to North Carolina, they got married and she quickly became pregnant. She put graduate school on hold and eventually turned to her first love, jazz singing, and is now a six-time Grammy Award nominee.

“Phil is one of those lucky people who always knew what he wanted to do,” Nnenna Freelon said. “For most of us, it’s more circuitous. I was blessed to have a husband who was passionate about what he did and wanted me to find what I was passionate about.”

For a globe-trotting professional singer and star architect, Durham isn’t an obvious home base. Why not New York, Los Angeles or Chicago? “When you have kids, your life changes,” Phil Freelon said. “We figured we could live here and get in an airplane and go where we needed to go. I’m a huge family guy, and I love being a father. That was most important.” The Freelons have three children, who all live nearby. Deen Freelon, the oldest, is a tenured professor at the UNC School of Media and Journalism. Maya Freelon Asante is a visual artist. And Pierce Freelon, the youngest, is an activist and former Durham mayoral candidate who runs Blackspace, an after-school entrepreneurship and social media program for disadvantaged youths.

“I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.”

“It’s been impressive what Phil has done here,” said Kevin Montgomery, the African-American president of O’Brien Atkins whom Freelon recruited to that firm in 1988. “He was able to develop a firm in a midsize market that has global recognition and can compete with much larger firms in places like New York and Chicago.”

That proved to be the case with the Smithsonian museum, a project, Freelon said, that was more than a decade in the making. A couple of years after his Museum of the African Diaspora opened in 2005 in San Francisco, Freelon teamed up with New York’s Max Bond to win a contract from the Smithsonian to complete the planning and pre-design work for the African-American museum on the National Mall. A year later, the Smithsonian announced an international design competition, and Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye approached Freelon and Bond about joining forces.

“David is the highest-profile architect of African descent in the world, and we had our eyes out for what he was going to do for the competition,” Freelon said. “We met and determined we had similar approaches and values, so the team was expanded.” They also added another firm, Washington-based SmithGroup, which had previously done work for the Smithsonian. More than 60 groups, representing firms throughout the world, sought the commission. The Smithsonian eventually culled the field to six, provided them with stipends and asked them to produce designs within 60 days.

Team members from Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, who designed the winning concept for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, meet with members of the Smithsonian Institution: (from left to right) Hall David, Peter Cook, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Lonnie Bunch, David Adjaye, Phil Freelon and Smithsonian secretary Wayne Clough in front of a model of the winning design in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 2009.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

“We were competing against all these starchitects,” Freelon said, including I.M. Pei, Norman Foster and Moshe Safdie. A committee composed of members of the Smithsonian, the architectural press and academics picked the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup design.

When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne hailed the building’s “powerful strangeness” that “embraces memory and aspiration, protest and reconciliation, pride and shame.” He continued, “The museum’s skin — has that typically benign architectural term ever been more charged? — allows it to stand apart from the Mall’s white-marble monuments like a rebuke.” The most recent accolade came in January, when the American Institute of Architects named the museum one of nine winners of its 2019 Honor Awards.

During the opening ceremonies, which included a Kennedy Center performance by Nnenna, Freelon was walking with a cane. He’d experienced leg troubles the previous year, although at first he didn’t think much of it. “I was run-down anyway, because 2015 was an intense year,” he said. Not only was he finishing the museum, he was also teaching at MIT. He had also just completed a merger of his firm with the global architecture powerhouse Perkins + Will, which had been courting Freelon for more than a decade. Freelon now oversaw the firm’s North Carolina operations from Durham.

“It wasn’t just that Phil was a superstar — and he really is the Michael Jordan of architecture,” said Perkins + Will CEO Phil Harrison. “We wanted Phil because of his design sensibility, which is modern but not cold. There’s a real humanism you can see in all his work. And with his staff you see a real diversity, not just in demographics but in thinking.”

When Freelon traveled to D.C., he would jog around the Mall to stay in shape. “I noticed I’d use the same effort, but it was taking me longer and longer to complete my course, and my right foot was dragging.”

After meeting with several doctors, Freelon was referred to Richard Bedlack, who heads Duke University’s Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Clinic. Freelon was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is progressive and incurable. It attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and in time results in total paralysis and, ultimately, death — typically within two to four years after the diagnosis.

Freelon was “shocked and disappointed,” he said, and there was a brief period of denial. But after a few months, Freelon told his staff and took a month off to ponder his future. “But I decided to go back and work full time,” he said. Now, he uses a heavy electric wheelchair and works less and mainly from home. He remains on the Perkins + Will board of directors and is closely involved in ongoing projects.

“I’m an optimist by nature, and I look at my prognosis as a glass half full,” Freelon said. “I’m relieved I was able to raise my children and have a career and family.”


Architect Phil Freelon at the offices of Perkins + Will in Durham, North Carolina.

Endia Beal for The Undefeated

One can drive a mile in almost any direction around Durham and come across a building Freelon designed. With his sister-in-law Debbie Pierce driving Freelon’s customized van, we visited the Durham Bulls’ Athletic Park, home to the country’s most famous minor league baseball team featured in the movie Bull Durham; the Durham County Human Services Building, an airy, glass structure with a huge courtyard that replaced a grim, Soviet-style bureaucratic bunker; and several science buildings on the campuses of North Carolina Central, an HBCU, and Duke University.

Few professions offer their practitioners a chance to leave a physical legacy, and I offered to Freelon that he must feel proud as we revisited his creations. He laughed and alluded to a famous Frank Lloyd Wright quote: “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”

Of course, Freelon didn’t view his works as mistakes. He was being self-deprecating. But it was also significant that on our tour he insisted I visit a few buildings he didn’t design.

We parked in front of Duke University Chapel, a majestic Gothic structure with a 210-foot-tall bell tower. The chapel, along with other significant structures on Duke’s campus, including Cameron Stadium, was designed by Julian Abele, an African-American architect who was the chief designer for the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer. “The story goes that when Abele came down here to do site work he had to dress up in overalls and pretend he was a common laborer or he wouldn’t have been allowed on campus,” Freelon said. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the university formally acknowledged Abele’s contributions, placing a portrait of the architect in the lobby of the main administration building and naming the main campus quad Abele Quad.

Later, we pulled in front of a small church in a historically African-American neighborhood. Opened in 1931, it was originally a church for the deaf, who were recruited to work in Durham’s noisy cigarette manufacturing plants. More recently, it had been rented to various congregations. Eventually, it was put up for sale and Phil and Nnenna Freelon purchased it. We went inside, where workers were renovating the space. Freelon had hired a friend who had more experience with such work to be the architect.

The Freelons created a nonprofit, North Star Church of the Arts, to operate the building as a community space. (An inaugural service will be held Feb. 17.) “We’ll have spoken-word nights, after-school programs, maybe some weddings and other ceremonies,” Freelon said. “We just want to give back to the community.”

We were in the back of the church. The pews had been pulled out and stacked to the side, and we looked toward an imaginary dais.

Freelon has been involved in building celebrated structures that will last for many years. The Smithsonian museum likely will survive as long as our republic. But here he was inside a humble church that he didn’t even design, smiling. “Nnenna and I wanted this to be our legacy project,” he said.