Celebrating The Sisters of Spelman

by Jeanette Valentine, Soul Of America

The balcony of Spelman College’s Sisters Chapel erupted in cheers from 500 freshmen black women, rocking white dresses like fashion-show angels. Down below, thunderous shouts from the capped and gowned Class of 2012 filled the main sanctuary. And the noise level just kept rising. “Wow,” I said. The morning’s program hadn’t even started.

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” the woman next to me whispered.

I was at Spelman’s Founders Day Convocation, a centerpiece of the school’s two-week anniversary celebration. Part reverent ceremony and part rowdy pep rally, the event offered inspirational reflections and performances showcasing Spelman’s past and making clear the bright promise of its future.

For an alternative to traditional Atlanta sight-seeing, nothing will uplift your spirits more than Founders Day week at Spelman. Moving and life-affirming, the events beat any guide book offering. I brought along my 13-year-old niece.

By tradition, seating in the chapel is reserved for freshman, seniors, faculty and administration members, the Golden Girls and Diamond Daughters (alums who graduated 50 years ago and more than 50 years ago, respectively) and dignitaries.

Among the latter this year were Civil Rights Legend Joseph Lowery, Congressional Representative John Lewis and actor Samuel L. Jackson, whose wife LaTonya Richardson was receiving an honorary degree. Muriel Ruth Ketchum Yarbrough, Class of 1949, received the Founders Spirit Award. All other students and visitors watched a closed-circuit broadcast at Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Ed.D. Academic Center Auditorium, a state-of-the-art facility donated by the educator and wife of Bill Cosby.

Pristine and elegant, Sisters Chapel boasts a soaring ceiling and understated stained glass windows of cream and gold. As audience members found their seats, Dr. Joyce Johnson – an alum described as “small, but feisty” – played a sweeping orchestral hymn on a massive pipe organ.

Following Spelman President Beverly Daniel Tatum’s welcome, the program launched into a skit of Spelman students in period costumes re-enacting the school’s founding. They portrayed New England teachers and missionaries Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles and Reverend Frank Quarles, pastor of the school’s first site, Friendship Baptist Church. (Spelman took its name from Laura Spelman Rockefeller, wife of early benefactor John D. Rockefeller.)

Spelman Founders Day sisters in white

Spelman Founders Day sisters in white

After LaTanya Richardson received her honorary degree, she gushed about the impact of Spelman on her life. She counted herself among the “ashy-legged princesses” who dreamed of attending the college at a young age; Richardson visited for the first time as a five-year-old with her kindergarten class.

The program treated us to African drummers, modern dancers, poets and songs by the Spelman Glee Club.

My favorite part was a fierce Spoken Word performance featuring four students whose squared-shoulders and head-held-high regal stance communicated in body language what they proclaimed in bold verse. The powerful ending was loudly declared by the first student, then echoed by the second, then the third, then the fourth:

“There is no institution more extraordinary, more distinctive, more deserving of awards, applause or accolades than our beloved Spelman. And I am a witness to this truth.” I got goosebumps.

And I wasn’t alone. It was the first Founders’ Day convocation for Freshman Taylor Brown, Class of 2015, who called it “overwhelmingly amazing. I really enjoyed learning more about the history and just being surrounded by generations of Spelman women,” she said. “I’m glad to be able to sit here today, knowing I will eventually be able to join the great alumni group and make my mark in the world.”

Spelman Founders Day classroom

Spelman Founders Day classroom

Following the Convocation, students, administration, alums, dignitaries and visitors held a birthday party, including a cake studded with 131 candles. During the two-week period surrounding Founders Day, Spelman held a Jazz Spring Concert, an Alumnae Rally and a Worship Service with Friendship Baptist Church.

On Saturday evening, the College hosted its annual Ms. Spelman Pageant in Sisters’ Chapel. Seven gorgeous, talented Spelman students vied for the title in a competition heavy on culture and commitment to social change. The contestants were Kayla Conti, Kyla Gaines, Jordan Harris, Lyricc Jackson, Afton Lane, Angelica Webster and Danielle Wilkins.

As the pageant started, they were spotlighted sauntering toward the stage from the back of the chapel, each dressed in the colorful garb of another country, including India, Brazil, Afghanistan and Thailand. In turn, they spoke of the beauty of their homelands, but also lamented the sublimated roles of women. Each “character” ended by relaying her journey to Spelman and her intention to change the world.

Later, the women took the stage bejeweled and swathed in lavish evening gowns. The talent competition featured them singing, dancing, playing the piano, and in one case, giving a spoken word ode to golfing prowess. The latter contestant, English major Afton Lane, went on to be crowned Ms. Spelman.

In addition to participating in Spelman’s Founders Day activities, my niece and I were able to see quite a bit of Atlanta. Here are the highlights:

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change
The King Center sits on a National Historic Site along famed Auburn Avenue. Within a stone’s throw are Dr. King’s childhood home, the church he co-pastored and his father and grandfather pastored and his and Coretta Scott King’s final resting place. If you can, plan to spend more than a few hours in this corner of Atlanta, which holds so much meaning for African Americans.

Just inside the main entrance are arresting black and white photos of the Civil Rights leader. Nearby stands a miniature replica of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, completed in 2011 in Washington DC. The statue shows a contemplative Dr. King with his arms folded at the elbow, his left hand holding a rolled scroll.

The Center offers a treasure trove of Civil Rights artifacts and memorabilia – from the leather dress shoes of activists to the tin signs proclaiming “Whites Only” to the wooden caisson that carried the body of Dr. King in his funeral procession.

Videos about Dr. King played continuously on flat-screen monitors mounted above exhibits detailing his life story. On display in other parts of the Center were personal items, such as his Bible, handwritten sermons and clothing. A replica his Nobel Peace Prize is housed in Freedom Hall across the street.

My favorite exhibit was a series of life-sized statues looking as if they were participating in a Civil Rights March. Visitors can take photos and march alongside the protestors to feel a part of the movement.

Across the street is the Reflecting Pool that surrounds the tombs of Dr. and Mrs. King. Yards away is the Eternal Flame, a bowl of burning coals that remains eternally lit to symbolize the longevity of King’s commitment to his ideals.

Next door, we ducked into the foyer of Ebenezer Baptist Church just as it was closing, and a gracious security guard waved us into the empty sanctuary to take photos. With peach colored walls, red carpeting and modest wooden pews, the church looks like hundreds of thousands of places of worship around the country.

But standing in one of the aisles facing the podium from which Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached places you in the center of history. Close your eyes and you can imagine a congregation of black people dressed to the nines and absorbing the inspirational words of Rev. King on Sunday mornings a half century ago.

Begin the day early to register for coveted tickets for a guided tour of Dr. King’s nearby birth home.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change
ADDRESS: 449 Auburn Avenue NE, Atlanta, GA
PHONE: 404-526-8900
WEBSITE: http://www.thekingcenter.org

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site
ADDRESS: 450 Auburn Avenue NE, Atlanta, GA
PHONE: 404-331-6922
WEBSITE: http://www.nps.gov/malu

The big tank at Georgia Aquarium

The Georgia Aquarium
I’m lucky to live a few hours north of California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, considered an aquatic treasure for the study and observance of marine life. I visited the attraction just weeks before my Atlanta visit and had planned to size it up against the Georgia Aquarium. But there really was no comparison.

Monterey houses more than 35,000 animals and plants, while the Georgia Aquarium is home to four times that number. According to the Guinness Book of World Records it is the largest aquarium in the world, comprising 600,000 square feet and more than 10 million gallons of water.

Each of six galleries depict habitats that ranged from the arctic to coral reefs to river systems. We made our way through most of them, petting stingrays in the tide pools, laughing at the lumbering penguins, marveling at albino alligators and watching expectantly as staff lowered an already-expired fish into the midst of a tank of Piranhas. Alas, the predators apparently weren’t hungry.

And we strolled through the same underwater tunnel seen in Tyler Perry’s movie, “Daddy’s Little Girls.” Even discounting the thrill of walking in the footsteps of sexy Idris Elba, the tunnel was impressive.

Schools of thousands of fish – snappers, groupers, grunts, sharks and whales, among them – swam to the left, to the right and above us. The tunnel and its connecting aquarium habitat is the largest of its kind on earth, containing 6.3 million gallons of water.

The only bothersome aspect of the visit was the abundance of corporate sponsorship: The Ocean Voyager exhibit was built by The Home Depot. The living coral and reef Tropical Diver exhibit was brought to you by Southwest, and Georgia Pacific sponsored Cold Water Quest.

But funding must come from somewhere, and a few displays of branding are a small price to pay for such a marvel of an aquarium.

Georgia Aquarium
ADDRESS: 225 Baker Street, Atlanta, GA
PHONE: 404-581-4000
WEBSITE: http://www.georgiaaquarium.org

Inside CNN Studio Tour
An escalator ride at the beginning of the Inside CNN Studio Tour felt like an ascent into the heavens. The moving staircase made its way skyward, inching through an impossibly bright atrium and toward a giant replica of earth that hung near the ceiling. The escalator deposited us onto a small loft inside the “planet.”

After such an astral beginning, what better way to proceed than with the opportunity to be a star? An anchor’s desk, complete with a news studio backdrop, beckoned for each of us to sit and do our best impression of Diane Sawyer. We smiled for a photographer as we pretended to relay the latest headlines. (Of course, the photos were available for purchase later.)

Our tour guide, cautioned that we would tackle eight floors of stairs during the tour. Our first stop was a small, dark control room, where we sat in comfy chairs and learned how the director choreographs a broadcast, deciding from among many screens which one is shown to viewers at any one time.

We visited a mini set where I volunteered to read the news from a teleprompter. Next up was the newsroom (we peered into it from an upper level balcony) with enough computers and telephones to accommodate 200 journalists. After learning that CNN also owns and broadcasts HLN (formerly Headline News), we toured its smaller studios.

Finally, we stood outside a wall-sized window to watch Anchorwoman Brooke Baldwin deliver the news live to more than 212 countries. Unseen by the global audience were monstrous million-dollar video cameras, searingly hot studio lights, and thick black cables snaking across the floor.

Inside CNN Studio Tour
One CNN Center
Atlanta, Georgia

The World of Coke
A few years ago, I participated in a campaign called “Soda-Free Summer.” A local coalition of nutrition advocates designed to wean children, teens and adults from the sugary drinks. The World of Coke exhibition must be that organization’s worst nightmare.

I’ll save the cola debate for a different article. But I thoroughly enjoyed spending an afternoon walking through The Coke Company’s homage to its ubiquitous beverage.

The spherical building rises like a giant off-white globe just across a grassy knoll from Atlanta’s famed Georgia Aquarian. During our Spring Break visit, a mass of laughing and jostling children and teens crowded the line to get in.  They quieted down once inside, likely because the sun-lit lobby evoked a sense of reverence.  That’s despite wildly colorful, larger-than-life sized bottles of Coke from different countries on display.  Giant, flat screened televisions covered the red walls, playing continuous loops of folks enjoying liquid refreshments.

The tour began inside a dimly lit cavernous room with Coke memorabilia covering every inch of wall space. A bubbly, no pun intended, tour guide gave us a mini lesson on the origins of Coke – invented in 1886 by Pharmacist John Pemberton. We were ushered into an auditorium and shown a cute cartoon starring whimsical characters on a Cola-related adventure.

The guide then set us loose to explore. The exhibition included a replica of a bottling plant, a maze of marketing memorabilia and “The Vault of the Secret Formula,” an enclave of interactive experiences that showcases “the magic” of the beverage’s recipe.

But the piece de la resistance was a tasting room with 64 sodas on tap. They represented the soft drinks Coke sells in countries around the world. My favorite was Ginger Ale from Mozambique. The tasting room was the highlight of D’laesha’s Atlanta visit. And even with a world of sodas to choose from, her favorite was Cherry Coke from the United States.

The World of Coke
ADDRESS: 121 Baker Street NW, Atlanta, GA
PHONE: 404-676-5151
WEBSITE: http://www.worldofcoke-cola.com

Six Flags Over Georgia
We caught public transportation to Six Flags, and it was less of an ordeal than it sounds. We hopped on the MARTA subway, exited at H.E. Holmes Station, and then boarded bus 201, which dropped us off right at the park. (Note that the bus runs only every 45 minutes).

• This was the beginning of a packed day for us, and so our goal was to ride the most stomach-churning roller coasters in the least time. Our choices were plentiful since Six Flags Over Georgia is the largest of the 14 Six Flag properties in North America.

• First up was Gotham City, a Batman-inspired tangle of blue-painted steel curving in patterns that had us defying gravity one too many times for my fragile constitution. It sped 50 miles an hour, whipped around hair-pin turns, plummeted 11 stories and put me in a head-over-heels position twice.

• Each subsequent coaster was incrementally more terrifying. The Dramamine I take for motion sickness would’ve come in handy, but it was back at the hotel.

• Bolstered by pep talks from D’laesha, I survived three additional coasters, saving the most daunting one for last. For aficionados of speed and daring, nothing beats the Ninja. The red and black structure speeds 55 miles an hour and features five upside down loops.

• For a finale, we boarded the sedate classic vintage motor cars ride, Hanson, which meandered around railroad tracks that remained thankfully horizontal. D’laesha took the wheel, acting as my chauffer as I attempted to regain my equilibrium in the back seat.

• Our Six Flags visit was a success because she had a ball. And eventually I recovered from feeling like I needed to curl into one.

Things to Know:

• Avoid wearing white during Founders Day celebrations at Spelman unless you are an alum.
• Purchase a MARTA day pass for the subway system. I would’ve saved at least $30 if I’d purchased a $10 day pass instead of forking over $2.50 for numerous round trip tickets.
• Buy an Atlanta CityPASS online at http://www.citypass.com/atlanta. It provides a 45% discount to five of the city’s top attractions.

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