Graduates wait to take their seats at the 132nd Spelman College commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 19,  2019, at the Georgia International Convention Center. (Photo: ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Spelman College welcomes graduates to community of educated women

No one offered to pay off their student debt, but 480 seniors at Spelman College did receive some good advice Sunday.

Poet Sonia Sanchez told them: “resist.”

Spelman president Mary Schmidt Campbell advised: “Stay lit.”

And 9,000 or so emotional family members screamed their approval as the young women joined the ranks of the educated.

Unlike the scene at Morehouse College graduation ceremonies a few hours earlier on Sunday, when billionaire Robert F. Smith announced he would pay off the outstanding student debt for the Morehouse class of 2019, there was no fairy godmother bringing bundles of cash to the Spelman grads.

The keynote speaker at Spelman’s 132nd commencement was Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Bottoms also received the National Community Service Award in recognition of her years of public service.

Bottoms spoke of her aunt, Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson, an early organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and a Spelman student.

“What Spelman had instilled in her was that the choice to change the world was hers,” said Bottoms. 

Bottoms encouraged the members of the Class of 2019 to use their voices for positive change. She warned that “many will try to silence you,” but quoted the words of poet Audre Lorde, who wrote, “When I dare to use my power in the service of others it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms gives the keynote address at the 132nd Spelman College commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 19, 2019, at the Georgia International Convention Center. (Photo: ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Poet Sonia Sanchez  the author of more than 20 books including “Homecoming,” “Love Poems,” and ”I’ve Been a Woman,” received an honorary doctorate in fine arts.

The diminutive Sanchez peered over the podium and told the assembled women, “You don’t know how beautiful you look right now. You are the ones we’ve been waiting for. It’s going to be tough, but you can do it, coming out of a place named Spelman.”

Sanchez’s work “Does Your House Have Lions?” was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and she is the recipient of the 2018 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets.

» RELATED: Photo gallery from Spelman College’s commencement

Three historically black colleges — Spelman, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University — made plans to provide extra security during their commencement exercises, after the Westboro Baptist Church fringe group said on its website it planned to picket, protest and preach at the ceremonies.

Like at Morehouse’s morning commencement, only a few Westboro protesters were seen at the afternoon commencement for Spelman’s commencement exercises, which were held off campus. Clark Atlanta’s commencement is Monday.

Among the graduates Sunday was Farris Christine Watkins, a cum laude music major, who is the granddaughter of Christine King Farris and the great-niece of Martin Luther King Jr.

As she welcomed the new graduates, Spelman president Mary Schmidt Campbell quoted the biblical book of Matthew, telling them that they represent the light of the world. “I see the light in you, my Spelman sisters. So stay lit.”

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