I recently gave the 2015 Rhoda Coleman Ellison lecture at Huntingdon College, where I did a reading in Ligon Chapel in Flowers Hall, met with two classes composed of very impressive students, and got to talk about my work in progress on Sara Mayfield. I’m posting my introductory comments for my reading because I was so impressed to learn about Rhoda Ellison and what a remarkable person she was. (This photo of her is from Huntingdon College’s Facebook page.)
Here’s what I said:
Thank you so much for having me at Huntingdon. I’m honored to be here and to read in this beautiful space.
I want to thank, specifically, President West, the English Department, especially chairperson Dr. Jennifer Fremlin, and professors Jim Hilgartner and Mandy McMichael for inviting me into their classrooms. Thanks to Kristi McDaniel for making everything run so smoothly.
Thanks also to Thomas and Cheryl Upchurch of Capitol Book and News for handling the book table tonight.
And finally, I’m grateful to Dr. Rhoda Ellison for establishing this lecture series. From what I’ve been able to learn about her, I wish I’d had the opportunity to know her.
When I found out I would be giving the Rhoda Coleman Ellison Lecture, I remembered that a friend in Tuscaloosa, Frances Tucker, had told me that she was a student of Dr. Ellison’s. It seems like, so often, named lectures, buildings, prizes become written in stone, and the human behind the name disappears. So I wanted to learn more about who Rhoda Ellison was. Frances, who was at Huntingdon in the 1950s, told me that in her first week of Freshman English, Dr. Ellison had read aloud Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Frances said that Dr. Ellison’s reading was so powerful it made her hair stand on end! An art major—and there were perks to being an art major in those days, as they were the only ones allowed to wear jeans on campus—Frances was nevertheless convinced by Dr. Ellison to become an English major, and also went to work for her.
I learned that Dr. Ellison was educated at Randolph-Macon, in Virginia; at Columbia, in New York City; and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—quite a cultural stretch for a young woman from Centreville, Alabama, in the 1920s. As late as the 1960s, many Ph.D. programs discouraged women students—including the young Helen Vendler, who would become a celebrated poetry critic –on the grounds that educating them would be simply a waste, as they were destined for marriage and motherhood. For my friend, and I know for many other young women, Dr. Ellison was a model of accomplishment and a significant intellectual influence on their lives.
I have also learned that Dr. Ellison was a scholar—a historian, critic, and bibliographer. As many of you will know, among her seven books, Dr. Ellison wrote a history of Huntingdon from 1854-1954, published by the University of Alabama Press in 1954; a sesquicentennial edition was issued by Montgomery’s own NewSouth Books in 2004. In a review of the Huntingdon book published in the Journal of Southern History, Dr. Ellison was referred to as “an able bibliographer of Alabama imprints and an accomplished member of the English staff at Huntingdon” and the results of her work deemed “gratifying indeed.” (Vol. 2, No. 2, 1955)
Another friend, as a young woman with a master’s degree, was hired by Dr. Ellison to teach at Huntingdon, and remembers how incredibly bright she was. That friend eventually got her Ph.D. in English and became chair and then dean at the University of West Alabama.
Both friends agree that Dr. Rhoda Ellison was a remarkable woman, a scholar, teacher, and world traveler, and that her intelligence, curiosity, generosity, and engagement with life must have helped her in passing the century mark.
While Dr. Ellison was still living, Frances and other students raised funds to dedicate a room to her in the library. At the dedication, former students including well-known storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham told stories and made everyone laugh. One story of their time on campus, in the late thirties, involved the rule that young ladies going downtown on the bus must wear hats and gloves—but instead, said Kathryn, they would stash their hats and gloves under a hedge near the bus stop, go to town hatless and gloveless, and retrieve the required attire when they returned to campus.
Much about our attire has changed since the thirties or the fifties, but many of our concerns have not. As I thought about what I’d like to read tonight, I decided to focus on one of my main areas of interest, southern women—as remembered in my poems, memorialized in my nonfiction, and imagined in my stories. So I’m going to read a bit of each tonight, and I’ll be happy to talk to you afterwards if you have any questions.