The "Bennett Belle." The words conjure an image that is genteel, old-fashioned--hats and gloves, brown-skinned women in flowing white dresses beaming as they take that final walk to graduation.
The Bennett College for Women campus certainly reinforces the image, with its broad, tree-shaded lawns and quadrangle and its historic buildings--fully 15 of the 29 total have National Register status, from the majestic Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel to the Carnegie Negro Library facing busy East Washington Street.
But the pleasant paradox of Bennett College is the way in which old and new are meeting there in such intriguing ways--in, for example, the poised personage of Mesha White, student government president and campus ambassador. "We say at Bennett that you come here to meet the woman you're going to become," White says, as she guides a visitor across the Greensboro, N.C., campus on a brisk, sunny late winter morning.
White has all the grace and poise one would expect of a "Belle" but she's also a global citizen, speaking with passion about her semester in Ghana, her interests in business and communications, her hopes of getting into Columbia University's international studies program--or perhaps a job in Washington, D.C.--next year.
White is also, according to Bennett President Julianne Malveaux, one of the most dynamic student activists on the campus of 689 students--a young woman who, one weekend before, had organized a peace and justice march that drew upward of 700 students from Bennett, North Carolina A&T State University and the University of North Carolina-Greensboro to commemorate the lives of two young N.C. A&T students murdered in random acts of violence.
"The young men had been shot at [N.C.] A&T, but it's not an [N.C.] A&T problem--it's a young people's problem. So Mesha was fantastic--she simply stepped up and organized it. I marched with them for a little while, and it was incredibly inspiring to see so many young people gathered on a Saturday" Malveaux says.
Implementing a 21st-century Vision
Malveaux is quick to draw connections between Bennett's present and its past, reminding visitors that Bennett's iconic president, Willa B. Player, gave the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. his first pulpit in Greensboro--when "all the ministers were too frightened;" that for every A&T student who sat at a lunch counter, there were 10 Belles outside holding placards, marching and singing as they went to jail; that Player demonstrated her own commitment by entering the jail herself to take the girls their homework.
"Which, if you think about the South and the times, sends such an interesting signal," Malveaux muses. "She was letting the powers that-be know: Don't mess with my girls"
Malveaux admits that she thinks a lot about history at Bennett. As one of only two women's historically Black colleges in the nation (Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., is the other), "this is a critical place in the annals of Black history, not to mention the annals of women's history," she says. But hers is no simple exercise in nostalgia: Malveaux, with the advantage of an edgy commentator's persona, an incisive intellect and a sweeping grasp of national and international perspectives, is in the process of crafting a 21st-century vision for Bennett, a vision that involves "seeing Black women in a context, and teaching our students to see themselves in those terms as well."
In addition to Bennett's core areas of education and science, Malveaux has begun laying a foundation for her vision of renewal for the college that includes four academic cornerstones: global studies, communications and media studies, leadership, and entrepreneurship.
She explains: "If there's anything we know about the 21st century it's that these are the key areas. Women in the 21st century must be global. They must be communicators--they must be able to talk, write, present and represent. …