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Statement on the Passing of Distinguished Alumna and Professor Emerita, Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Dear Howard University Community,

Today, we pause to honor the life of our mother, sister, and friend in belles-lettres, Toni Morrison. She was a daughter of Howard and gift to the world.

Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, Toni Morrison was a student at Howard from 1949-53, during which time she assumed the nickname "Toni." In addition to her academic pursuits in the departments of English and Classics, she was a member of the Modern Dance Club, Alpha Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, and the Howard Players.

Morrison was an English major, so in every way, her essence was connected to mission. She was a truth seeker; she sought to shatter the barriers of institutional racism. She also benefitted from the tradition of argument in the finest sense of the word, which was evident in her approach to prose. Both then and now, her words challenge our consciousness, as well as move, heal, inspire, and provide light in darkness.

Ms. Morrison earned a bachelor's degree from Howard University in 1953 and a master's degree from Cornell University in 1955. In 1958, Morrison returned to alma mater to teach in the Department of English. She made a monumental impact on students as a young, Black woman faculty member—a significant undertaking. It was while she was a lecturer at Howard, in fact, that she joined a writers' group and shared with that group a short story, which later became her first novel The Bluest Eye (1970).

Morrison was a member of the distinguished American Philosophical Society, the International Parliament of Writers and the Authors' Guild, and the Africa Watch and Helsinki Watch Committees on Human Rights. She served as a senior editor at Random House Publishing Company for twenty years, where she published writers like Angela Davis, Henry Dumas, Toni Cade Bambara, and her fellow Howard alumnae, Lucille Clifton. She also supported the publication of Kwame Ture’s Stokely Speaks, where he acknowledges her impact as a young professor at Howard when he was a student here.

Among the universities where she held teaching posts are Yale, Bard College, Rutgers, and Howard. The New York State Board of Regents appointed her to the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at the State University of New York at Albany in 1984, a post she held until 1989. In 1988, she was the Obert C. Tanner Lecturer at the University of Michigan and the Jeanette K. Watson Distinguished Professor at Syracuse University. In 1989, Morrison joined the faculty of Princeton University and was appointed the Robert F. Goheen Professor in Humanities, where she stayed until she transferred to emeritus status in 2006.

Ms. Morrison was also a founding member of the Académie Universelle Des Culture, a trustee of the New York Public Library, a member of the American Academy and Institute of the Arts and Letters, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She served on the National Council of the Arts for six years.

Morrison's life and work are emblematic of the infinite opportunities that are made possible at Howard University. That is not to say that without Howard she would not have become an award-winning novelist, the first African American woman to earn the Nobel Prize in literature, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the country's highest honor—or the many other prestigious awards, recognitions, and honorary degrees awarded to her. We are proud, however, of the role the University played to make possible the gift that was Toni Morrison. The gifts Howard was able to give to her, she has given to the world. She is our national treasure.

The author of nearly one dozen novels, several volumes of critical essays, children’s books, plays, a song cycle, and an opera—rooted in the Black experience, in 1979, she received a Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award, and on the occasion of Charter Day Convocation in 1995, Morrison honored her symbiotic relationship with the University as the orator and an honorary degree recipient. She spoke these words, “Howard University, both as an institution and as a population, has had an extraordinary journey. It entered the world in an interventionist mode and has continued throughout its history to engage with, debate and respond to the most salient, the most passionately held and the most urgent issues of this nation.”

On April 5, 2019, the Toni Morrison Society placed its 25th bench at Howard University as a part of its Bench by the Road Project. We are pleased that we were able to honor her in this way and that she honored us with this remembrance of the significance of Howard in the field of education.

A devoted mother, grandmother, and aunt, Ms. Morrison summarized her sentiments regarding impermanence thusly: "We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." She did language, and we are all immeasurably the better for it.

Though she has left this earth, we remain grateful for the continuous gift of her words on the page, which will undoubtedly inspire generations. Morrison's contributions to literature are memorialized through the halls of this institution, on lesson plans, in the minds and hearts of our students, faculty, staff, and alumni and will never be forgotten.

Excellence in Truth and Service,

Wayne A. I. Frederick, M.D., MBA