Atlanta — While embracing African traditions in a dramatic and poignant ceremony, Spelman College recently opened its new state-of-the-art academic center made possible by a $20-million gift from Drs. Camille and William Cosby.
The new five-story building — brimming with high-tech classrooms and laboratories — is more than a gift to Spelman, said the comedian/philanthropist. “This is a gift to the United States of America.”
“Let your hearts absolutely sing with joy and with gratitude,” exhorted Spelman’s beaming president, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, who presided over the building’s dedication and celebration ceremonies.
With “talking” drums, poetry and the symbolic pouring of libations, Spelman celebrated the official opening of The Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center with a flourish and a razzledazzle complement of hundreds of local and national dignitaries, alumni, students, faculty, friends and fans of both the college and the famous couple.
The Cosby Center, as it is already popularly known, is a striking edifice distinguished by its appointments of rich mahogany, ornate masonry and terrazzo floors.
Cosby expressed pride in the quality of the building and in the “maintenance company” — the Spelman family — he charged with making “sure that this jewel has the finest maintenance ever.” Later he declared: “There’s class here.”
The newly dedicated building is now the home for studies in the humanities, several interdisciplinary programs, the Women’s Research and Resource Center and the International Affairs Center. It will also serve as a cultural center.
The center houses classrooms and laboratories equipped with high-tech learning aids, an auditorium, television studio, reading room and the Cosby Center Fine Arts Museum, which contains the college’s permanent collection of African-American, African and European art.
Robert Holland Jr., chairman of Spelman’s board of trustees, called the couple’s gift “an unprecedented expression of generosity by an African-American family.”
Of the $20 million the Cosbys donated to Spelman at Cole’s inauguration in 1988, some $12 million — plus $3 million provided by Spelman — was earmarked for the construction of the 92,000-square-foot building. The remainder of the Cosby gift was used to endow chairs, update equipment and repair and maintain buildings and facilities.
“We could have invested the $20 million in stocks and bonds,” Camille Cosby told a gathering of Spelman students. “But we wanted to invest in you. It’s rewarding to aid human possibilities and choice.”
Her sentiments echoed the words of master teacher Anna Julia Cooper, quoted during the festivities by Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, director of the college’s Women’s Center: “`Education is the safest and richest investment possible. It pays the largest dividends and gives the grandest possible product to the world.'”
Camille Cosby is a philanthropist, producer and educator. A Howard University graduate, Cosby received her Ed.D. in 1992 from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She has focused her philanthropic interests on the education of Black children and the support of Black colleges and universities. Bill Cosby, a graduate of Temple University, also earned his Ed.D. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1976.
The Cosby gift to Spelman is the largest personal cash donation ever presented to a historically Black college or university. Spelman officials credit the gift with helping it attract additional donations, including $37 million from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation.
Among the participants in the Cosby Center celebration program were Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell; poet Sonia Sanchez; Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women; and Evin Cosby, a daughter of the Cosbys and a freshman at Spelman. Spelman graduate Varnette P. Honeywood created a collage called “Lifelong Learning” especially for the occasion.
Others who attended included Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), Ed Lewis, publisher of the magazine Essence, and Dr. Alvin Pouissant, noted psychologist from Harvard University.
Cole said the college “desperately needed the building” for its teaching, faculty, archival space and up-to-date conveniences. Students agreed.
“It’s modern, thank God!” said sophomore Nicolle Martin, who attends history classes at the center. “We especially needed the space.”
Said sophomore Rasheedah Muhammad: “It means we are growing as an institution and that Spelman can produce even better students.”
But, as celebrants expressed throughout the weekend celebration, the Cosby Center holds value beyond its beauty and utility. Designed by a Black female architect and constructed by Black-owned firms, the building is an affirmation of the all-embracing talents of Black Americans and a source of inspiration.
`This is for …’
“Out of the generosity of this first African-American family, we now have a structure of such exquisite quality,” Cole said in an interview, “that we dare not do less than exquisite quality work inside it.
“This symbolizes to me the very best. And that’s what the education of African Americans should be about — the very best. This is a time when we cannot afford mediocrity.”
With obvious passion, Bill Cosby described how good it felt to be in a position to honor others by awarding such a gift. He ticked off a list of African Americans who inspired others with their accomplishments and service.
“This is for Marian Anderson … Jackie Robinson … Althea Gibson … Dorothy Height … the Tuskegee Airmen … Oscar Glover,” he said.
Glover, actor and comedian said, was a neighborhood hero from Cosby’s boyhood. Glover earned $38 a month and had three daughters, Cosby remembered, as he .struggled to keep himself composed. “But the man went into his pocket to set up a charter Boy Scout troop” and purchased uniforms for 17 excited 12-year-olds.
The Cosby Center, he said, honors people like that.
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