Angelou Death
11:09 pm
Wed May 28, 2014

Angelou Called a Unifying Force

Triad residents applaud Dr. Maya Angelou for inspiring people to stand and be courageous in the storms.

Dr. Maya Angelou believed each person has a purpose. She hoped her writings added sparks of encouragement as they discovered that purpose.
Credit Wake Forest University

Dr. Maya Angelou was known around the world for her extensive work as a poet and as an author who evoked the better side of all people.  On Wednesday, May 28, her caregiver found Dr. Angelou dead in her Winston-Salem home. Angelou's son, Guy Johnson, released the following statement: "Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension.  She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being.  She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.  The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love."

Since the early 1980s, Dr. Angelou lived in Winston-Salem. Many people say they were personally touched by her inspiring words, as in the poem, "Be a Rainbow in Someone Else's Cloud." In it, she urges people to stretch  beyond their fears and to be kind to those different from themselves. Dr. Angelou's writings reflect personal struggles with racism, family abuse and her irrepressible spirit of hope. Social activist Larry Little says Dr. Angelou encouraged him while he was in law school at Wake Forest University (WFU) in 1985. "Maya would send me little notes, saying keep up the good work, don't give up," recalls Little.

"I know there are times when you're going to get knocked down but get back up and let's continue the struggle, let's continue to fight to make progress in the struggle for social change," said Little, who is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Winston-Salem State University. He’s also a former member of the Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panthers. He fondly remembers morning walks with her on the WFU campus. Angelou was on the faculty as the life-time Reynolds Professor of American Studies.  "She would often walk through the campus. We'd see each other and we'd embrace. She'd say, 'Larry how are you doing' and I'd say, 'I'm struggling. I've been studying all night for this law school stuff','" says Little.

Little said she'd say something inspiring that would enable him to return to class recharged. "The next thing I know she wrote an article for Piedmont Airlines that talked about the continuing struggle, and said ex-Black Panther leaders like Larry Little can now do outstanding work in law school and lead the struggle for legal and social justice." According to Little, Dr. Angelou also played a pivotal role in supporting the legal efforts to help Daryl Hunt. In 1984, Hunt was wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering a white female newspaper reporter.

Little was one of Hunt's attorney's. "A lot of people don't realize it was Maya Angelou who got the national council of churches to put up $50,000 for Daryl Hunt's release." Little says she also helped with a fund raiser. Once Hunt was released after serving 19 years in prison, Dr. Angelou congratulated Little. "Maya sent me the most beautiful bouquet of roses and a nice statement saying, 'Larry you never gave up. You continued the struggle for justice and now we can smile and rejoice at Daryl Hunt's release."

Dr. Angelou also played a major role in setting the stage for Winston-Salem to become the City of the Arts by supporting the North Carolina Black Repertory Company (NCBRC). Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin described her as a mentor to her husband, the late Larry Leon Hamlin and the founder of NCBRC. Sprinkle-Hamlin is the executive director of the National Black Theatre Festival. The biennial event pumps millions of dollars into the city by producing live theatre over a six day period. "She embraced his vision of a national black theatre festival," says Sprinkle-Hamlin.

"She supported us by making sure the 1989 festival was a success by inviting some of her celebrity friends in." In addition, Sprinkle-Hamlin says Dr. Angelou had recently given her support to the creation of a National Black Theatre Hall of Fame. It's to be built in Winston-Salem.  In 2010, Dr. Angelou spoke with WFDD’s former general manager and Voices & Viewpoints host Denise Franklin about her excitement of receiving the President’s Medal of Freedom from an African American President.

But she also said she was saddened that the nation was divided over President Barack Obama. "It's racism and sexism and ageism. So much ignorance," she told Franklin. "There's a statement, I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me," proclaimed Dr. Angelou. Last month, a poll by Elon University listed Dr. Angelou in the top 10 of Most Admired North Carolinians.

She also nurtured many university students on the campus of Wake Forest University through a global poetry class she taught. In 2011, Nicole Little and John Mundell studied under her. "Dr. Angelou, what I've learned from her is that you can't be afraid of who you are, what your path is, what your fate is because it's going to surface," explains Little. "Just embrace it now, continue to roll on and grow." Mundell agrees. "She was very open minded and encouraging for all of us, to find our own voice in a poem," he says. Mundell refers to Dr. Angelou's very famous poem, Phenomenal Woman. "She has inspired us to see we are also phenomenal men and women. Dr. Angelou treated us as equals. She was our professor but she also considered us her teachers."