On June 19, the Meredith College Black Alumna Collective hosted a Maroon Table Talk in honor of Juneteenth. The topic of discussion was “where would we be if Black women didn’t exist?” and included Ashley Graham, ‘21, Toni Irwin, ‘19, and La’Meshia Whittington, ‘16.
The event began with spoken word poetry from Genesis Atkins, who is an alumna of NC State, and ended with another poem by Breanna Rhanay, who is part of Meredith’s Class of 2016. The panel discussion began with a conversation around what Juneteenth meant to them. As Afro-Indigenous people, Graham and Whittington explained that it was a reminder of how much has been taken from their communities.
A question was posed to the panelist about their feelings on Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday. Graham said she felt that this was purely performative in nature. The other panelists agreed, with Irwin noting that this was not a priority for Black people. Whittington pointed out that though it was a performative act, it is important not to let it remain that way. She cited policy changes like reparations and defunding the police that are more helpful than a federally recognized holiday. The women also pointed out the hypocrisy of recognizing a holiday with significant meaning while also outlawing the teaching of its meaning, as well as critical race theory, in several states.
The panelists talked extensively about their experiences at Meredith and how the institution has been a source of trauma. Graham spoke candidly about her experiences with Meredith’s history department when calling racism out. She explained that professors spoke poorly of her behind her back while simultaneously benefitting from the work she did around the department. Graham said she feared publicly speaking about her experiences before graduating because she didn’t want her diploma to be withheld. Irwin noted that she had a different experience with the Business Department, as did Whittington with the Sociology and Criminology Department. But the panelists came to the same conclusion: their issues were different because their courses covered different topics. “Your livelihood is discussed daily in political science and history classes,” Graham said. Topics like immigration, slavery and segregation resonate deeply with students of color, making it difficult to not get emotional during class conversations or point out when something is wrong.
They also discussed how the accomplishments of Black women are often disregarded by higher education institutions. Graham was awarded top 10 seniors for her class, yet her Strong Story nomination was withdrawn because of her conflict with the History, Political Science and International Studies Department. Whittington discussed how her accomplishments and titles were diminished during her undergraduate experience at NC State by faculty members who told her that her race meant she was incapable of becoming an agriculture major. Both women experienced significant mental health issues as a result of these experiences.
Panelists also noted how a lack of diversity in faculty means a lack of diversity in curriculum. Whittington is actively involved in changing that on campus. She is an adjunct professor at Meredith and worked alongside Jovita Lee, ‘16, to create a class for racial equity and social justice in the Sociology and Criminology Department. The class was first offered last spring and will be offered again in the spring of 2022. Whittington encouraged people to enroll and spread the word about it.
This event highlighted how important community is for Black students on campus. Irwin said that if it weren’t for the Black friends she made on campus, her experience would’ve been extremely different. The experiences shared served as a healing space for the audience and those facilitating the event. The Black Alumnae Collective plans on holding their next meeting this coming fall. For more information, contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: The original version of this story stated that Graham's Strong Story was "removed from Meredith’s website because of her conflict with the History, Political Science and International Studies Department," but in fact her nomination for a Strong Story from the department was withdrawn.
By Aminah Jenkins, News Editor