Agnes Scott College celebrates 50th anniversary of first Black graduate

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Several speakers who gathered Wednesday at Agnes Scott College used the word “trailblazer” to describe Edna Lowe Swift.

In 1971, she became the first Black American to graduate from the women’s college in Decatur.

The school honored her with one of its most hallowed recognitions: a wooden bench on the campus lawn with a silver plaque commemorating her place in the college’s history.

“I am so honored,” Swift said in an interview minutes before the bench ceremony. “I cannot believe it. I am thrilled beyond words.”

Credit: Eric Stirgus

Credit: Eric Stirgus

Swift, 72, was joined at the ceremony with what one speaker said may be her most important legacy to the college. Her daughter, Shanika Dawn Swift, 50, who graduated from the college in 1993, and her granddaughter, Tori Cole Cervantes, 26, a 2018 alum of the school.

Cervantes, who has two daughters, is already planning to continue the family legacy.

“I’ll bring one of them here, hopefully,” she said.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Swift was born and raised on Atlanta’s west side. The Booker T. Washington High School student knew a classmate who briefly attended the college, which sparked her interest in the school. She was offered a scholarship and enrolled.

She arrived on campus for the 1967 fall semester. She commuted from home, describing herself as a “mama’s baby” with a chuckle. Swift, though, said her decision not to live on campus was in part because she wasn’t sure how she’d fit in.

Although she was the only Black student on campus, Swift said in an interview she felt no overt pressure in that role nor did she experience some of the vicious verbal attacks and riot that occurred when the University of Georgia’s first Black students enrolled in 1961.

A few speakers at Wednesday’s event, though, talked about some of the pressures Swift faced, such as being the lone Black voice in classroom discussions. One student leader at the time, Gué P. Hudson, said the college inadequately prepared to welcome Black students.

Swift said she found support from Black employees on campus who were eager for her to succeed.

“They were proud,” she said.

She said she was disappointed the college didn’t recognize her role in its history when she graduated in 1971. The Spanish major went on to a 28-year teaching career in the Atlanta Public Schools system, working at what’s now Maynard Jackson High School before retiring in 2005. She continues work there, acting as a substitute teacher on Tuesday.

College officials invited her to events in recent years as a guest speaker. The school named a lounge in its campus center after her a few years ago.

“You make me feel like a celebrity,” she said during the bench naming ceremony.

“You are,” several people responded.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

The college hoped to hold the ceremony earlier this year, but delayed it because of the coronavirus pandemic. They surprised Swift with the attendance of more than a dozen members of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Inc., and the college’s second Black graduate, Belita Stafford Walker.

The college’s president, Leocadia Zak, said in a speech that Swift “paved the way for other Black students, both here at Agnes Scott and across the Atlanta region.”

Zak also talked about the college’s ongoing diversity efforts. About 35% of its students identify as Black or African American.

Several recent graduates and current students, a few dabbing tears from their cheeks, spoke about Swift’s influence. Kirnel Grishby, who graduated from the college in 2012, credited Swift with inspiring her to earn her degree and start a business.

“I thank you every single day,” she said. “Every single day.”