Spelman honors Spike Lee’s mother, grandmother

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Filmmaker’s links to Atlanta Black women’s college goes back decades

Spike Lee’s legacy with Spelman College dates back nearly a century.

His grandmother, Zimmie Jackson, graduated from Spelman High School in 1925 and Spelman College in 1929. His grandfather, Richard Shelton, was a 1926 Morehouse Man.

Lee’s parents met in college. Bill Lee, who would score many of Lee’s early films, graduated from Morehouse in 1951, and Jacqueline Shelton graduated from Spelman in 1954.

Lee followed the family tradition, enrolling as a freshman in 1975 and graduating from Morehouse in 1979.

On Monday, that legacy was further solidified when Spelman College renamed the admissions office in the 134-year-old Packard Hall after Zimmie Retha Shelton and Jacqueline Shelton.

“We know that Spelman women are known for their ability and influence to change the world,” said Spelman College President Dr. Helene Gayle. “We are witnessing the influence of two Spelman Alumnae.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

ExploreSpike Lee: The Morehouse Years

Jessie Brooks, Spelman’s senior vice president of institutional advancement, said the college has been working with Lee for several years to come up with a plan to honor his mother and grandmother. Brooks said Lee’s “philanthropic efforts,” have helped Spelman, but would not say how much the Lees have donated over the years.

In his oft-told narrative, it is clear how influential Lee’s grandmother and mother were in his life and artistic development.

Lee was born in Atlanta, but his family quickly moved to Brooklyn.

Like many northern Blacks, he was often shipped back to the South for the summers. Part of his time was spent with his father’s family in Alabama.

But, a bulk of his time was spent in the Ashview Heights section of Atlanta at Zimmie’s house. An art teacher, she taught art in Atlanta for more than 50 years, but because of segregation never taught a white student.

Zimmie’s house was three blocks from Morehouse and when Lee arrived on campus as a student, he spent every Sunday at her house, often with a bunch of classmates for fried chicken and mashed potato dinners.

During the first semester of his sophomore year, his mother, Jacqueline, died of liver cancer.

Zimmie saved all of her Social Security checks to pay for the education of her grandchildren. For her first-born grandchild, Spike, she helped pay for his tuition at Morehouse and NYU, before giving him seed money for his first film, “She’s Gotta Have It.”

Zimmie Retha Shelton died in 2006 at the age of 100.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

“I think it is pretty clear that Spike was his grandmother’s favorite. They both got something out of him being at Morehouse,” said Lee’s wife, Tonya Lewis Lee. “Behind every great man is a great woman and he had several great women behind him before I even got here.”

With his wife sitting beside him, Lee — wearing a Morehouse letterman’s jacket over an ivory Spelman sweatshirt — was on campus for the dedication. Lee greeted old friends, recounted filming “School Daze,” at Clark Atlanta University and Morris Brown College, and reminisced about his days as a Morehouse student.

Named after Spelman’s co-founder and first president Sophia B. Packard, Packard Hall is the second oldest building on Spelman’s campus and one of the original buildings located on the school’s historic quadrangle. Over the years it has served as a school library, residence hall, art studio and post office. Currently, it houses administrative services like financial aid and admissions, which occupies the entire third floor.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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“This is a great moment for the Lees,” said Lee, seemingly at a loss for words, before snapping back to the loquacious storyteller.Back in the day, Packard Hall was a dorm. I am not gonna get into specifics, but it has a very special place in my heart for this particular dorm.”

Now, more than ever. Moments later, Lee pulled down a veil uncovering two banners acknowledging the name changes with his grandmother and mother’s faces emblazoned on them.

Lee was silent as he gazed upon them. Ever the filmmaker, he reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out his phone to capture video of the moment.

“I know that Miss. Zimmie and Miss. Jackie are up there doing a jig right now,” Tonya Lewis Lee said. “They are very proud of their son and grandson and beyond thrilled to know that their legacy is gonna carry on.”