Editor’s note: Below is an excerpt from First Lady Michelle Obama’s commencement address Sunday May 15, to Spelman College graduates in Atlanta.
To the Spelman class of 2011-congratulations. We are so, so proud of you. We’re proud of the effort you’ve invested and the risks that you took. We’re proud of the bonds that you forged, the growth that you’ve showed. We’re proud of how, for the past four years, you’ve immersed yourselves in the life of this school and embraced all that it has to offer.
In doing so, you didn’t just write a chapter in your own life story. You also became part of the Spelman story; a story that began 130 years ago about 10 miles down the road from where we are today.
And by now, all of you know the details: about how two white women from up North-Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles-came here to Atlanta to establish the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary. Now we want the world to know this story. They started out in a dank church basement, loaned to them by a kindly preacher named Father Quarles. And their first class had just 11 students, many of whom were former slaves.
Back then, the thought of an African American woman learning to read and write was, to so many, laughable at best and impossibility at worst. And plenty of people tried to dissuade Miss Packard and Miss Giles from founding this school. They said the South was too dangerous. They said that at the ages of 56 and 48, these women were too old.
But these two ladies were unmoved. As Miss Giles put it-and these are her words- they were determined to lift up “these women and girls who have never had a chance.”
It’s a story that has been told and re-told, enacted and re-enacted, in every generation since the day that Spelman first opened its doors.
In a time of black codes and lynching, this school was training African American women to be leaders in education, in the health professions. In a time of legalized segregation, this school was establishing math and biology departments, and training a generation of black women scientists.
At a time when many workplaces were filled with not just glass ceilings, but brick walls, this school was urging black women to become doctors, and lawyers, engineers, ambassadors.
Now, that is the story of Spelman College. And ladies, that is now your story. That legacy is now your inheritance. And I’ve chosen that word “inheritance” very carefully, because it’s not an entitlement that you can take for granted. It’s not a gift with which you can do whatever you please. It is a commitment that comes with a certain set of obligations; obligations that don’t end when you march through that arch today.
And that’s really what I want to talk with you about this afternoon. I want to talk about the obligations that come with a Spelman education, and how I believe you all might fulfill those obligations going forward. So let’s go back again to those first 11 women in that church basement all those years ago.
Their teachers started with nothing but a couple of bibles, some notebooks and some pencils. When it rained, it got so damp in that church that grass started growing on the floor. Often, the stove was so smoky and the light was so poor that students could barely see their teachers.
But still, week after week, more women showed up to enroll. Some walked eight or nine miles each way. Many were older, in their 30s, 40s and 50s-doesn’t sound so old to me. And often, they were ridiculed. But they kept coming.
Now, did they have moments of doubt, anxiety and fear? Did they have moments of despair when they thought about giving up, or giving in? Of course they did. We all do. And the truth is that there will always be folks out there who make assumptions about others.
There will always be folks who try to raise themselves up by cutting other people down. That happens to everyone, including me, throughout their lives. But when that happens to you all, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to just stop a minute. Take a deep breath, because it’s going to need to be deep, and I want you to think about all those women who came before you, women like those first 11 students. Think about how they didn’t sit around bemoaning their lack of resources and opportunities and affirmation.
And today, I want to end with some words from Tina McElroy Ansa, Spelman class of 1971. In one of her novels, she wrote, simply: “Claim what is yours…You belong anywhere on this earth you want to.”
And graduates, if you go out there and make that claim, if you reach back to help others do the same, then I am confident that you will lead lives worthy of your dreams, and you will fulfill that precious Spelman legacy that is now yours.