Stationed on the courtyard of her college campus, 17-year-old Stacey Abrams would attempt to register her classmates to vote in the 1992 election. She shared that while her efforts were somewhat unsuccessful, it solidified her passion for politics going forward.
This fall, Abrams will return to a college campus, not to her alma mater Spelman College, but as the inaugural Ronald W. Walters Endowed Chair for Race and Black Politics at Howard University, announced last month.
“My goal is to make certain that my presence in this program, the work that we do, not only animates students but activates them to take their power,” Abrams told The Hilltop in an exclusive interview. “At its core, politics is about power.”
While much of her role at the Ronald W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center is still being finalized, the voting rights activist shared that she hopes to engage Howard students in diasporic discussions on race and politics. Additionally, Abrams will have the opportunity to lead a “speakers series with invited guests on a range of topics representing diverse perspectives,” according to the university.
“I think that now is the time to not only have this endowed position at Howard, but for Howard to lead what I think can be a collaborative conversation across HBCU campuses around the country,” Abrams said.
Abrams added her mission at Howard is also to expound on the teachings of the late Dr. Ronald Watlers, who died in 2010. Walters was a renowned pan-Africanist scholar, Howard professor and organizer of the country’s first lunch counter sit-in protest against segregation in 1958. Abrams said that she met Walters on multiple occasions, and heavily admired his work.
When Dr. Elsie Scott, the director of the Ronald W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center, first learned that Abrams would be joining the university as an endowed chair, she was thrilled about the learning opportunities the position would provide for students.
“We are very excited to welcome her to the university and the center,” Scott said. “Beyond all that she’s accomplished in the political world, for her to also know the person for whom the center is named after, I think that is helpful to the students as she does guest lectures or teaches.”
Scott explained that Abram’s position comes three years after Patricia Turner Walters, Ronald Walters’ wife, donated more than $2.5 million of artwork to Howard under the condition that an endowed chair position be created in her husband’s name.
Scott added that Patricia Turner Walters was instrumental in selecting Abrams as the inaugural endowed chair.
Julianna Boye, a junior political science major and newly elected president of the Howard University College Democrats, believes Abrams’ appointment is an opportunity for students to be exposed to and learn from various profound Black political figures. She sees Abrams as a positive addition to Howard.
“Stacey Abrams has an excellent record of being a voice for protecting our democracy, and being able to learn from her on issues of race and Black politics will be an amazing opportunity for all students here at Howard University,” Boye said, “A lot of times, us students don’t realize the centers and resources we have here on campus. This news has shed light onto the Ronald W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center.”
Contrary to Boye, Donroy Ferdinand, a graduating senior political science major, was critical of Abrams. While he acknowledged the efforts Abrams made in mobilizing southern Black voters in previous elections, Ferdinand said that he was unfavorable of some of her politics, such as her support for law enforcement. He also critiqued the message that the university makes in hiring her.
“At the end of the day, Howard University is a neoliberal institution,” Ferdinand said. “It supports and tries to attract corporate sponsorships and partnerships that aren’t necessarily in line with improving the academic experience of students, or faculty. Stacey Abrams’ hiring is an example of this.”
Abrams’ appointment comes as the most recent in a string of notable hires, including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad and award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“While she’s somebody who’s clearly intelligent and capable of being a chair at Howard…much of the policy and politicians she has supported, can be argued as harmful towards Black folks, both in the U.S. and globally,” he added.
Amid her second run for Georgia governor, Abrams was vocal in her support of funding the police, contesting allegations that she was “weak on crime” from her then opponent Governor Brian Kemp.
When asked how she plans to engage with students like Ferdinand, who have distrust in her politics, Abrams said that she celebrates the inquiry and hopes to help “shape the investigation of these critiques.”
“We believe different things, we operate in different ways and our experiences differ…I could be in a room with five Howard students and have 50 different backgrounds because we all have different experiences,” she said. “There are things that they have read or seen that may or may not be the whole picture. My job is not to argue, my job is to help shape the tools of investigation for enlightenment.”
Abrams shared that while she will still be based in Georgia, she will travel back and forth between her home and Washington, D.C. to fulfill her responsibilities as the endowed Chair of Race and Politics.
“What is remarkable about Howard is that it is a convening power. It’s going to be bringing me there, but it’s also going to be attracting people around the country and around the world to be a part of this conversation,” Abrams said.
“In the end, it’s not about you, it’s about who you serve,” she added.
Copy edited by Chanice McClover-Lee