With a $2 Million Gift, Spelman Will Launch the First-Ever HBCU Queer Studies Chair in Honor of Audre Lorde

Illustration for article titled With a $2 Million Gift, Spelman Will Launch the First-Ever HBCU Queer Studies Chair in Honor of Audre Lorde
Photo: Marcus Ingram for ALL IN: The Fight for Democracy (Getty Images), Jack Mitchell (Getty Images)

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid,” wrote activist, poet, author and feminist icon Audre Lorde, who in life and legacy has become a beacon for subsequent generations on the intersections of race, gender and sexuality. Now, Lorde’s legacy will be further cemented at Spelman College, the esteemed HBCU and global leader in the liberal arts education of Black women, which announced on Tuesday it has raised funds for the first-ever Queer Studies chair at a historically Black college or university, to be granted in Lorde’s name.


The chair’s funding was initiated by philanthropist Jon Stryker’s $400,000 donation to the institution in October of 2019; a gift that was matched in fundraising. Stryker, who chose Lorde as the chair’s namesake, will now provide a remaining $1.6 million, bringing his total gift amount to $2 million. An architect and environmental activist, Stryker is also the founder and president of the Arcus Foundation, a private, global grant-making organization that supports the advancement of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) human rights and conservation efforts. Affirming his long relationship with the college, a release provided to The Root notes: “In 2011, Spelman’s Women’s Center hosted the Arcus-funded historic summit ‘Facilitating Campus Climates of Pluralism, Inclusivity, and Progressive Change at HBCUs,’ which examined institutional climate issues around diversity, inclusion, gender and sexuality at HBCUs.”

“Jon Stryker’s consistent support of Spelman’s mission has enabled Spelman to take a leadership role in Queer Studies at HBCUs,” said Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D., president of Spelman, in a statement. “We are grateful for his generous support that continues to elevate the importance of this work in the academic environment.”

“In just a year’s time, the stellar team at Spelman has raised millions of dollars to support this important chair,” said Stryker in praise of the institution. “Spelman continues to lead on LGBTQ inclusion among HBCUs.”

Per a release from Spelman:

Named after poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde, the Queer Studies chair was announced to much fanfare. Lorde was selected by Stryker as the chair’s namesake for her groundbreaking and life-long commitment to civil rights and progressive social change. She had a strong connection to Spelman, speaking on campus on several occasions and donating her personal papers and other artifacts in 1995 to the Spelman Archives, a part of the College’s Women’s Research and Resource Center. The Audre Lorde Papers have been open to scholars since 2009 following a grant from the Arcus Foundation, founded by Stryker, which enabled the papers to be processed and displayed for students, faculty and researchers from around the world.

Audre Lorde lectures students at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. Lorde was a Master Artist in Residence at the Central Florida arts center in 1983.
Audre Lorde lectures students at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. Lorde was a Master Artist in Residence at the Central Florida arts center in 1983.
Photo: Robert Alexander/Archive Photos (Getty Images)

The statement further explained that a faculty committee will determine the selection process for the chair, including members of Spelman’s Comparative Women’s Studies department. Also included in the process will be two Queer Studies pioneering scholars “who will continue to work with the Spelman team during the implementation process.”


As the release explains, the chair is part of several concurrent efforts to create a more inclusive and progressive culture and curriculum at the nearly 140-year-old institution, America’s oldest private historically black liberal arts college for women. The aforementioned scholars are part of the college’s Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. Scholars Program, instituted in 2017 by the Women’s Center Founding Director Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Ph.D. in honor of her cousin. The scholarship program awards two renewable scholarships for LGBTQ advocates in tandem with a companion lecture series “that explores contemporary issues of race, gender and sexuality.” Historically a women’s college as well as a predominantly Black institution, in 2018, Spelman also officially expanded its admission policy to include trans students, an affirmation of its acceptance and alliance with the transgender community.

“Nearly a decade ago, Spelman’s Women’s Research and Resource Center, led by scholar Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, inaugurated the first HBCU-wide conversation around LBGTQ issues. With that conversation, Spelman’s Women’s Center assumed a leadership role among HBCUs in the newly emerging field of Queer Studies,” said Schmidt Campbell in an exclusive statement to The Root, further explaining a three-year, $589,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation had also recently been awarded in support of the launch of an Institute for the Study of Gender and Sexuality.


“Through this institute, faculty will receive intensive training and summer curriculum workshops on incorporating gender and sexuality studies across disciplines,” Schmidt Campbell continued—noting that the college will be sharing its bounty. “The training will start with Spelman faculty and expand to include faculty at Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University and other United Negro College Fund member institutions. Jon Stryker’s gift of an endowed professorship enable us to continue Spelman’s leadership in expanding knowledge and understanding of this field.”

Maiysha Kai is managing editor of The Glow Up, host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast and Big Beauty Tuesdays, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. May I borrow some sugar?



Every year I teach a poetry critique unit, and every year one of the poems that resonates most with the students is Audre Lorde’s “Hanging Fire.” That poem is pure honesty.