Eight local women honored at Black History Month event

February 26, 2019

Norwich — Nobody said anything when Michelle Dunlap’s grades began to slip her senior year of high school, but a few minutes before the graduation ceremony, several teachers and the principal said she had to give up her gold sash and cord. Dunlap told herself, “No one will ever have the privilege of telling me I slipped in something so they can take something away from me.”

At Wayne State University, she was friendly with the psychology department secretary — a role model to her, as another African-American woman — and the secretary recommended her for a scholarship. That taught her to be kind to everyone, and even if it won’t benefit you.

Dunlap had aspired to work at the post office, but professor James Jay insisted she go to graduate school. She recalled his words to her, “For every one African-American who has the ability and the opportunity, there’s 10,000 others who also have the ability but they’ll never have the opportunity.” 

Now, Dunlap is a professor of human development at Connecticut College.

She was one of eight black women to be honored at Three Rivers Community College on Monday evening, part of a Black History Month event Sankofa Education and Leadership Inc. held. The event, largely organized by LaShawn Cunningham, was to honor women making a difference in the lives of black students.

Sankofa is a nonprofit with a mission to “prepare, recognize and reward marginalized and underserved youth” in the Norwich area. Its annual events include the Dr. Grace Sawyer Jones High School Debate.

Board member Shiela Hayes told The Day that with the death of people like Jane Glover and Eunice Waller, it’s time to honor the next generation of impactful black women in the region.

A surprise honoree, Hayes told the crowd Monday that it was through women like them, and her mother, that she learned about how to make societal change, whereas she was a self-described militant in her teenage years.

Another honoree was Sarette Williams, chairwoman of the Norwich Free Academy board of trustees and an attorney. Her advice to the children and youth gathered was: “Learn to trust yourself. Learn to hear your voice louder than any other voice.”

Veda Wellington has spent the last 33 years as a secretary in the registrar’s office at Three Rivers, and she spoke of taking classes here and there while working full-time and as a single mother. She went on to get a master’s degree in clinical mental health at Southern Connecticut State University.

The other honorees were Angy Gardner, co-owner of Uncle D’s Blazing BBQ in Norwich; Ayanti Grant, district director for U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District; Tamara Lanier, chair of criminal justice for the Connecticut State Conference of NAACP Branches; and Tonya Laymon, teacher and choral director at NFA.

Cunningham and her co-host for the event, Shannon Woods, said that each woman trailblazed in the footsteps of a different black woman, such as civil rights activist Ella Baker, chef Edna Lewis and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

The event also included music, dance and poetry performances. Sariah Poe and Barron Williams performed “A Change is Gonna Come” and “For Your Glory”; Poe additionally sang Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” a cappella and read the poem “Too Black.” Also performing, in vocals and dance, were Nehemiah Davis and Zariah Johnson.