today in black history

May 11, 2021

Ira Aldridge, the great 19th century Black actor, famous throughout the world, was born in 1807 in New York City.

A Fitting Goodbye

POSTED: October 13, 2008, 12:00 pm

  • POST
    • Add to Mixx!
  • Text Size
  • PDF

Family, friends, colleagues and students of contributor the late Dr. Walter Stafford gathered for a celebration of his life last night in New York City at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Stafford, the first Black tenured professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, passed away last month after a decade long bout with cancer.

The audience in the auditorium of the famed Black research center reflected the breadth of Dr. Stafford’s life, bringing together activists from his early days as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to his tenure on Capitol Hill under Senator Richard Schweiker and time with the National Urban League to his work shaping public policy in New York City. Those who knew him as friend, activist, scholar and musician, gathered in a celebratory mood that carried the spirit of the man so many people admired.

A true “Renaissance man,” Walter or “Billy” as he was known to his many friends, was recalled in a program that invited colleagues to offer remembrances of him in each phase of his life. The mistress of ceremonies for the program was a former student, Florence Adu. She was joined on stage by the master of ceremonies, Executive Editor, Walter Fields, another former student of Walter Stafford. As the audience gathered for a pre-program reception and filtered into the auditorium they were treated to pianist Jerome Saunders, Walter’s piano instructor, who played a selection of Stafford’s favorite tunes against the backdrop of a photo slide show of his life. Setting the tone of the program were Esmerelda Simmons, Marta Moreno Vega, and Tonya Gonella Frischner, three prominent advocates who worked closely with Walter on research on women of color, who offered a spiritual blessing in Walter’s honor that was symbolic of the cultural diversity that Walter championed throughout his life.

His devoted wife Chelli Devadutt, herself a prominent researcher, offered a touching tribute to Walter that recalled the complexity of his life, his brilliance, and dedication to fighting for those in society who were downtrodden. Chelli recalled their years together and how, during the final stages of his life, Walter, a deeply private and independent man, allowed himself to become more reliant on her for support in a way that deepened their already special bond. His step-daughter Gita Stulberg also recalled how Walter supported her and embraced her endeavors, always challenging her to find purpose in her life and taking pride in her progress and accomplishments. His sisters, Alta Starr and Corrie Wingfield, shared their personal memories of their brother; from Alta’s recollection of Walter taking her to her first dance and Corrie recalling his love of music and his special affinity for a classic 1970’s album from the R & B group, The Spinners.

Recalling his early years as a SNCC activist, the “Freedom Singers” – Matt Jones and Marshall Jones – offered a song that recalled the civil rights struggle and reminded the audience that forty years later the struggle continues. His activist days were also recalled by close friends Frank Smith and Joyce Ladner, who shared their close to fifty year kinship with Walter; with both friends citing his sharp intellect, wit and magnetism.

Next to share their memories of Walter were a group of activists and researchers, collectively representing the Roundtable of Institutions of People of Color, who recalled Dr. Stafford’s championing of the “co-production of knowledge,” the alliance of the academy and community based organizations. Marta Moreno Vega, Esmerelda Simmons, Tonya Gonella Frischner, Suki Terada Portis, and Angelo Falcon, all prominent figures in New York City and national public policy circles, recalled Walter as a man who stepped outside the confines of the university setting and saw meaning and value in the work that was being done on the ground in communities. Esmerelda Simmons reflected on his excitement about the work that was being done by community based groups and his realization that it reflected a path that he felt was consistent with his own worldview. Tonya Gonella Frischner expressed her thanks for Walter’s concern for the American Indian community, as Suki Terada Portis made a similar observation about his work on behalf of the Asian community. Both Marta Moreno Vega and Angelo Falcon noted his work at bridging the Black and Latino communities, with Angelo providing a humorous account of Walter’s tenure on the board of the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy.

His life as a professor and mentor was cited by a group of former students and research assistants, all of whom connected with Walter in his role as a professor at NYU’s Wagner School. Three of his first Black students at the predominantly white graduate school – Walter Fields, Flores Forbes and Earl Simons – recounted their work in championing Walter as the school’s first Black full-time professor that resulted in his later being granted tenure at the institution. They were followed by a group of students who were associated with a program Walter created – the Graduate Education for Minorities (GEM) program; Oma Holloway, one of the first GEM coordinators, Yrthya Dinzy Flores and Daisy Auger Dominguez.

Directly following the first group were representatives from one of Walter’s most cherished accomplishments, the Women of Color Policy Network. Despite his gender, Walter cared deeply about the status of women of color and the consequences of public policy on this population. Speaking on behalf of the Network, his research assistant Diana Salas, was joined on stage by Angela Dews, Melissa Garcia, Jyoti Venketraman and Nicole Mason. Diana recalled Walter’s passion for data, his challenge to look at the “numbers,” and the disorder of his office that was always a challenge to sort out and organize. She also noted how he imbued his passion for research in his graduate students, and how each became part of a large body of “next generation” researchers who were the product of Walter’s commitment to sharing knowledge. Diana also read a letter from New York State Senator Bill Perkins, a former New York City Council Member representing Harlem, who recalled Walter’s work with the Council and extending an invitation to people to be present at an event to formally recognize Dr. Stafford by elected officials.

New York City Council Member James Saunders reflected on the central role that Dr. Stafford played in the Council’s creation of a $20 million workforce development initiative and how he demonstrated his political skills in guiding the program’s adoption. Dr. Phil Thompson of MIT recalled his early work as an activist and how Walter encouraged him to consider an academic career to better support his advocacy work. Dr. Thompson made reference to his work on the Harlem Empowerment Zone and Walter’s insistence that economic development initiatives in the village first consider Harlem residents and small business owners.

Last to offer their remembrances were a collection of colleagues from NYU. Wagner School Dean Ellen Schall recalled Walter’s independence and how the school learned to appreciate his unique perspective. Former dean Jo Ivey Boufford recalled her first conversation with Walter at her welcome reception and how he casually mentioned his work with 20 institutions representing people of color and how we shyly mentioned it might be something she would find interesting. Boufford recalled working with Walter to house the Women of Color Policy Network at Wagner and the activities and energy the new institute brought to the school. She also shared how, upon learning of Walter’s illness, suggested he use her personal trainer touchingly recalled the sense of sadness the staff of their gym felt upon learning of his passing. Norm Fruchter recalled Walter’s commitment and his memorable laugh; something that Norm said he would always try to elicit from Walter when they spoke. Don Johnson urged the audience to honor Walter by standing up and speaking out against the racism that is being exhibited during the current presidential campaign.

The evening ended as it began, on a spiritual note, with Esmerelda Simmons, Marta Moreno Vega, and Tonya Gonella Frischner providing a blessing for Walter’s spirit and his continued good works through the lives of the many people he touched.

Related References