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We asked you who defines Black excellence for you. You answered.

A Black woman with curly hair wears glasses and a patterned shirt, staring to the left of the camera.Shirley Chisholm

Brief Background:

Congress is more diverse now than it’s ever been. However, when Chisholm was attempting to shatter the glass ceiling, the same couldn’t be said. During the racially contentious period in the late ’60s, she became the first Black woman elected to Congress. She represented New York’s 12th District from 1969 to 1983, and in 1972, she became the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Her campaign slogan — “Unbought and Unbossed” — rings even louder today. Senator Kamala Harris recently paid tribute to Chisholm in her presidential campaign announcement by using a similar logo to Chisholm’s.

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

“Chisholm became the first African American to run for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States, in the 1972 U.S. presidential election, making her also the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination”

Walter Mosley

Brief Background:

From Wikipedia: Walter Mosley is an “American novelist, most widely recognized for his crime fiction. He has written a series of best-selling historical mysteries featuring the hard-boiled detective Easy Rawlins, a Black private investigator living in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California; they are perhaps his most popular works. In 2020, Mosley received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, making him the first Black man to receive the honor.”

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

“He has created engaging, highly entertaining and literate books with memorable, well-defined characters and intricate plots.”

A black woman with long black hair sits with her arms rested against the desk, she's smiling at the camera.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris

Brief Background:

“Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is an award-winning physician, researcher, and advocate dedicated to changing the way our society responds to one of the most serious, expensive, and widespread public health crises of our time: childhood trauma. She was appointed as California’s first-ever Surgeon General by Governor Gavin Newsom in January 2019.

Dr. Burke Harris’ career has been dedicated to serving vulnerable communities and combating the root causes of health disparities. After completing her residency at Stanford, she founded a clinic in one of San Francisco’s most underserved communities, Bayview Hunters Point. It was there that Burke Harris observed that, despite the implementation of national best practices for immunizations, asthma, obesity treatment, and other preventive health measures, her patients still faced outsized risks for poor health, development, and behavioral outcomes. ” (from

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

“The work of Adverse Childhood Experiences has been important to developing trauma-informed approaches in education, psychology, law enforcement, corrections, health care, and more.

I show Dr. Burke Harris’ TED Talk, “How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across the Lifetime” in class every semester that I teach and recommend that everyone watch it.”

A black and white photo of a Black man standing at a podium talking into a microphone. He is wearing a suit and has short hair.James Baldwin

Brief Background:

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a brilliant writer and social activist. He was a gay, Black man who grew up in poverty and within a difficult family situation. Those challenges helped him to develop a powerful, incisive voice whose words continue to ring true today:
“You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.”

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

Baldwin’s writing and activism are a continual inspiration to me, as they are to so many others.


Melvin O’Neal

Melvin O’Neal is a retired teacher from Freeport School District 144 in Freeport, IL. He was also a Black Belt Tae Kwon Do instructor.

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

I first Met Mr. O’Neal when I was in 6th grade. He was my Tae Kwon Do instructor and later became my Social Studies teacher in the 7th grade. He was a soft-spoken man with a great sense of humor. Yet, through my Tae Kwon Do training he instilled within me the qualities of discipline, self-control, and fortitude. Looking back, I realize how impactful it was to have such an awesome mentor of color in my life. This helped me to see beyond the color of one’s skin as I went out into the world and experienced all manner of diversity. His mentorship and training were instrumental in weathering the physical and mental rigors of Marine Corps boot camp at age 17. As a Social Studies teacher, he helped me see the world and dream of experiencing other cultures and infinite possibilities. I later joined the Peace Corps and served in Morocco. I thought of him often. In summary, Melvin O’Neal had a powerful impact on the trajectory of my life. To say that I’m thankful to him would be an understatement. I know he had a similar effect on many students through the course of his career. To me, he is a hero.

A Black woman wearing a purple shirt and black leggings running on grass with green hills in the background.

Photo courtesy of Jenny Nicholas.

Mirna Valerio

Brief Background:

Mirna Valerio’s accomplishments as a larger-sized black woman are remarkable. See I do not know her personally, but as a former runner I have followed her story over the years. I was thrilled when she chose Vermont to be her new home state!

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

She defies several norms with grace, humor, and a tenacious sense of “keep moving forward, no matter what is in your way.”



A portrait of a black woman with short curly hair and large glasses smiling at the camera.Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson (1918-2020) was one of the mathematicians featured in the movie HIDDEN FIGURES. She, along with many other Black women, worked as a human computer for NACA, the predecessor to NASA. Katherine was an instrumental part of the NASA space program in the 1960s. Her calculations helped land men on the moon. She was the first woman at NASA to have her name appear on official research reports. Without her and many of the other human computers, it is likely that we would not have developed our space program as we did.

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

“Katherine was an amazing mathematician. She was also a Black woman and, as such, has been historically underrepresented in the field of mathematics. She is an inspiration to me. I wonder if more women my age would have studied mathematics had they been aware of women like her. I wonder how many young women now will see her and think, ‘maybe I can do that, too.’”


Woman from side view looking towards camera. Wearing a red blouse and metal necklace.

Photo courtesy of Laura Hanifin

N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin is a science fiction and fantasy writer. Three books in her Broken Earth series won Hugo awards for best novel, and she was the recipient of the MacArthur Fellows Genius Grant in 2020.

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

She is a groundbreaking writer in what has been a white male-dominated genre. She brings in themes of race and class and explores them in wonderfully written fantastical worlds.



A young woman with dreadlocks smiles at the camera. She is wearing a Johnson Badgers jersey and holding a basketball.Devyn Thompson

Devyn Thompson is a junior at NVU-Johnson, with plans to be a high school English teacher after graduation. She is strong advocate for Black rights and one of the most powerful women I know.

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

Devyn is an advocate for equity and justice on our campuses. She is a powerful leader who is committed to working toward just systems in our institution for students of color. She demonstrates commitment to the principles of equity, justice, diversity, inclusion, and belonging. She does not shy away from confronting injustice when she sees it, and she amplifies voices of students of color in the VSC. She recently worked with the Board of Trustees to adopt a system-wide Anti-Racism Pledge, which is unprecedented in our institution. Devyn is also an outstanding student and athlete, president of the Coalition of Minority Students, a future educator, and a published author. Devyn is going to change the world, and she is an example of Black Excellence right here in the Vermont State College System!

A woman close to the camera smiling, short hair.Gwendolyn Brooks

A poet, author, and teacher from the South Side of Chicago, who in 1950, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry — becoming the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize.

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

“Gwendolyn Brooks needs no introduction, as she is one of the greatest 20th century poets. She helped younger poets while also focusing on her work.”



A man in a suit and tie with short hair smiles at the camera.Sidney Poitier

Actor, film director, diplomat, and social activist

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

First Black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, he refused to accept roles that portrayed African Americans in a demeaning or stereotypical way. He also served as ambassador from the Bahamas to Japan and to UNESCO.


Octavia Butler

From Wikipedia: “Octavia Estelle Butler (June 22, 1947 – February 24, 2006) was an American science fiction author and a multiple recipient of the Hugo and Nebula awards. In 1995, Butler became the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.”

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

Octavia Butler is one of the most celebrated science fiction authors of all time. She is the recipient of multiple Hugo Awards, a MacArthur Genius Grant, and at least a dozen other recognitions from the field of literature and beyond. Her work has been fundamental in shaping Afrofuturism as a genre, and she’s been instrumental in introducing diasporic worldmaking to generation of young adults.

An extreme close-up of a woman's face as she stares defiantly into the camera.Assata Shakur

“Assata Olugbala Shakur (born JoAnne Deborah Byron on July 16, 1947) is a former member of the Black Liberation Army (BLA), and a former black panther. She became involved in political activism at Borough of Manhattan Community College and City College of New York. After graduation, she began using the name Assata Shakur, and briefly joined the Black Panther Party. She then joined the BLA, a loosely knit offshoot of the Black Panthers, which engaged in an armed struggle against the U.S. government.”

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

“Assata is fearless: she fearlessly advocated for her comrades and herself in a system that brutally threatened her life on a consistent basis. Her mark on the Black liberation movement is timeless.”

A black and white side view of a man as he looks at the camera, he is wearing a suit and tie.Carter G. Woodson

Brief Background:

Historian and writer Carter G. Woodson, the son of enslaved parents, established Negro History Week in 1926. He chose the second week in February because it included the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Fifty years later, it became Black History Month under President Gerald Ford.

Woodson co-founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915 and is known as the father of Black history for his dedication to honoring the accomplishments of African Americans. He was the second African American to get a Ph.D. from Harvard (W.E.B. Du Bois was the first), and is the only person descended from enslaved parents in the United States to earn a Ph.D.

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

Woodson dedicated his life to bringing African American history, including the African American diaspora, to public knowledge, and wrote the influential book, The Mis-Education of the Negro. He said, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”

Bettina Love

From Wikipedia: “Bettina L. Love is the Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Education at the University of Georgia, where she has been instrumental and a pioneer in establishing abolitionist teaching in schools. According to Love, abolitionist teaching refers to restoring humanity for children in schools. Love also advocates eliminating the billion-dollar industry of standardized testing.”

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

“Dr. Love is an emerging leader in the field of education, teaching, and learning. Her vision for ‘abolitionist teaching’ has had a profound impact on the way that students, teachers, and academics think about the history of freedom and liberation in educational settings.”

An extreme close up of a girl's face. She has a nose ring and bright red braids.Moani Sparks

NVU-Johnson first-year student Moani Sparks is always there for whoever needs her.

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

Moani Sparks is kind, caring, helpful, hardworking, and outgoing. She has had a rough year, but even with all that is happening in her life, she has stayed strong.  She is always there for her friends and works hard. She is unapologetically herself and an amazing person.


Leo Dillon

Leo Dillon (1933-2012) was the winner of two Caldecott medals for excellence in picture book illustration and one of the preeminent illustrators of color. He and his wife Diane illustrated more than 70 books together. In receiving their first Caldecott in 1975, the interracial couple broke the “color barrier” in children’s books and Dillon became the first African American to win a Caldecott. When they were awarded a second Caldecott Medal in 1976, they became the first artists to receive the award two years in a row.

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

He was one of the first recognized Black illustrators.

A woman with an afro in a black shirt stares sadly to the side of the camera.Angela Davis

From Wikipedia: “Angela Yvonne Davis (born January 26, 1944) is an American political activist, philosopher, academic, scholar, and author. She is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

Angela Davis, elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2021, has been a thought leader in race, racism, class, classism, gender, and feminism since the start of her career as an activist and scholar.

The Little Rock 9

Brief Background:

From “The Little Rock Nine was a group of nine Black students who enrolled at the formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957. Their attendance at the school was a test of Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. On September 4, 1957, the first day of classes at Central High, Governor Orval Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to block the Black students’ entry into the high school. Later that month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine into the school. It drew national attention to the Civil Rights movement.”

Why is this person an example of black excellence to you?

These nine young people displayed extraordinary courage and determination in entering the segregated school amidst extreme verbal abuse and physical threats. Their continued attendance and academic success, despite nearly constant abuse and ostracism, is a lesson in courage and character.

A group of young black student standing around a balding white man in a suit.