By Wilma Goldstein
This year marks the 50th year residents of zip code 20024 in Southwest DC have awarded college scholarships to young people in our neighborhood. In fact, we have never missed a year since 1974, when residents living in the River Park Apartments decided they would like to raise some money and contribute it to several high school graduates to help them with their college expenses. In 1975, they took their idea to the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA) and became an official part of the organization, taking the name SWNA Scholarship Fund, and in 2014 they officially became the SWNA Education & Scholarship Task Force (ESTF).
Today, there are 261 former scholarship recipients and we are presently involved in an effort to locate as many as possible and invite them to this year’s awards ceremony in August. We are planning separate events to celebrate those who will graduate from college this year, our former scholars, and those who will graduate from high school this year. Friends of Southwest, an organization which gives additional scholarship money to a number of our scholars, will also be participating. If you know any former scholars you think might be especially difficult to locate or any young people whom you think would benefit from a scholarship, please let us know. Follow us in The Southwester where we will share news about our events.
This month we would like to add another former scholar to our “Where Are They Now?” series.
Shantella Y. Sherman was an ESTF Scholar while attending Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson State is one of the largest historically Black colleges and universities in the United States and was originally founded as a Baptist mission in 1877 before becoming a full state university in 1974.
Dr. Sherman was recommended to us by our friend Helen Compton-Davis, Outreach Director for Southwest’s Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and Media Arts.
“I wonder if she ever contemplated that her college ventures, partly supported by ESTF, would have her teaching and spreading knowledge around the world,” Compton-Davis said of Sherman. “Supporting ESTF is like throwing a pebble into a lake; the expansive ripples created are significant and help change and improve world conditions.”
Sherman is from a large Mississippi family. Her mother was the youngest of 13 children who was raised by her father, two older brothers and her grandmother after her own mother passed away when she was five years old. Sherman’s mother left Mississippi for Memphis where she lived with one of her sisters for two years, then married, and moved to DC where she raised her family, first in LeDroit Park, then in Channel Square where she now lives and which Sherman considers her DC home.
Sherman’s grandmother, who lived to be 107 years old, was a strong influence on the lives of both mother and daughter. She helped instill values that were applied to how you treated others, how you behaved in public, sharing whatever you had, even if it was meager, having good diction and eating in “restaurants with tablecloths.” In the Sherman household, you were always expected to behave like the adult you were intended to become.
Sherman started her formal education at Amidon (before it became Amidon-Bowen) Elementary School where she studied until sixth grade. She considers Amidon an amazing place, where the teachers and administrators lived in the neighborhood, knew you and your family well and reinforced what you learned at home. She is especially grateful to two women who took a special interest in her, and whom she considers mentors. One is Marilyn Moser,
who was the school librarian and also responsible for events and pageants at the school; and Marjorie Sherman (no relation) who was part of the school administration, and always available when young Shantella wanted to know “why.”
One of the groups Sherman participated in selected her to be the Amidon student to speak before the U.S. Senate on Children’s Day. Both of her mentors encouraged her to memorize her testimony so she could speak without notes. When she did, the Senators were amazed at this small child who could articulate beautifully and speak without notes. Sherman was strongly affected by that process and practices it to this day. She uses a conversational style of speaking that comes from the ease of memorization and makes her audiences and students equally comfortable. She strongly believes what she learned at home and from being a student at Amidon gave her the courage to pursue a career in a controversial area for a Black scholar as well as thrive in new and, not always comfortable, environments.
After sixth grade, she was encouraged by her family and the Amidon staff to attend Francis Middle school. They liked the idea that the school was located only a few blocks from Embassy Row and would give Sherman an opportunity to know and interact with students and their families from other countries and cultures. (The Francis School and its counterpart, The Stevens School, served students from preschool through 9th grade.) After completing 9th grade at Francis, Sherman went on to DC’s Wilson (now known as Jackson-Reed) High School where she completed grades 10-12 and graduated.
She began her higher education at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) where she completed all her freshman and sophomore required courses, majoring in sociology and minoring in mass communications. In 1992 she relocated to her first choice of schools, Jackson State University in Mississippi, where many members of her extensive family still live. During this time, Sherman saw a notice in The Southwester about ESTF scholarships, applied and was awarded them in 1992, 1993 and 1994.
When her mother learned that after taking classes in psycho-sexual therapy Sherman had ideas of becoming the Black, hipper version of Dr. Ruth, she strongly suggested a switch away from sociology and making her minor in mass communications her new major (no way to explain that one to the ladies at church!).
At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Sherman studied for her Ph.D. and found her life’s work as an historian in the field of eugenics, working as a Black scholar in an environment that was almost exclusively White. The state of Nebraska has about 2.5% of its population that is non-white and most of the non-whites live in Omaha, while the university is located in Lincoln.
She took a summer internship at NBC and for a while considered writing for television. Living in allegedly progressive Manhattan while interning at 30 Rock, she also experienced first-hand how acceptance in both White and Black groups is often based on the intensity of your skin color as well as your size. As a large, dark-skinned Black woman, she experienced barriers to acceptance, experiences that propelled her into what has now become much of her life, an exploration of eugenics.
The literal definition of eugenics is the altering of genetic pools by excluding people and groups judged to be inferior or promoting those judged to be superior. It can be difficult to understand why Black scholars might want to devote so much energy to the study of eugenics. In the epilogue to the book In Search of Purity, written by Dr. Sherman herself on the subject of eugenics, you find this explanation: “it is likely that Black reformers felt compelled to engage in the growing science of eugenics, (along with) a need to attack its theories by finding (both) its fallacies and limitations.” When Sherman discusses eugenics, she does not limit her explanations to race but includes class, culture and social norms.
Other Black intellectuals and scholars who have taken positions on issues that fall within or somewhat outside the literal definition of eugenics include Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Nannie Helen Burroughs. Dr. Sherman’s book In Search of Purity grew out of her
Ph.D. dissertation that focused on positions taken on the topic of eugenics by “Negroes” during the years 1915-1935 and examines a re-interpretation of eugenic theories by Black scholars who helped integrate the science into a movement for racial uplift. At Nebraska, she found another mentor in the professor who became her thesis adviser, Dr. Jeanette Eileen Jones, and her work pays homage to several teachers in the History Department at Nebraska, as well as the women who served as members of her dissertation committee.
Since receiving her Ph.D., Sherman has become a kind of one-woman messenger, not only on the American eugenics movement but several of her other fields of study, such as Women & Gender, Black British culture, African American history and popular culture. She has created forums on these topics, and has worked as an editor for The Washington Informer, the Philadelphia Tribune newspapers and RoundLake News Service. She created a journal on eugenics called “Acumen” that is published quarterly, and divides her time lecturing on topics of particular interest both in the United States and in Europe.
In October of 2022, she was named the Freedom Scholar for her eugenics research by the Association and Study of African American Life and History (ASALH.)
Information for this article was drawn from an interview with Dr. Sherman, conducted over several hours on a Saturday afternoon in Southwest, where I was joined by Vyllorya Evans, Co-Chair of SWNA’s Education & Scholarship Task Force and Vania Georgieva, who chairs the ESTF Fund-Raising Committee. We came away with great admiration for Dr. Sherman’s expertise, as well as the courage it takes to explore eugenics and take on the task of educating people on this complex topic. Follow her on social media and attend one of her lectures, we’re sure it will be an unforgettable experience.