Sitting at a baby grand piano in a new residence hall at Wake Forest University on Friday, performing artist Valerie Ashford Simpson played and sang “Reach Out & Touch” in honor of the late Maya Angelou.
“I think it speaks to what she’s done for all of us and what she wants us to do — to continue to reach out and touch,” Simpson said of the song she and Nickolas Ashford wrote.
Many of the nearly 100 people gathered in the resident hall’s “parlor” for students held hands and sang along with her: “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand. Make this world a better place if you can.”
Angelou, who was a poet, author, professor, civil rights activist and former resident of Winston-Salem, taught students at Wake and was its Reynolds Professor of American Studies from 1982 until her death in 2014.
Along with her many accomplishments, Angelou now has a residence hall named after her.
Simpson was at Wake on Friday for the university’s ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony for Maya Angelou Hall.
The 76,110-square-foot, five-story residence hall is the first building at Wake named after a black person and the second building named for a female professor.
The building, which is on the south side of the campus, is designed to house 224 students. It includes a classroom, study spaces, a media/game room, kitchens and a recreation lounge. The Residence Life and Housing offices are on the ground floor.
Maya Angelou Hall was completed in December and opened in January. Currently, sophomores, juniors and seniors live in the residence hall. Beginning in the fall, Maya Angelou Hall will house first-year students only.
“This is like Thanksgiving in February,” Elliott Jones, Angelou’s grandson, said of the ceremony.
Then he read a letter from his father and Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson, which included words of appreciation from Angelou’s family for naming a campus residence hall in her honor.
“I am positive that she is looking down on us from her special heights and smiling upon us,” Johnson stated in the letter. “Wake Forest University held an important position in my mother’s life because it gave her an opportunity to see that she was not simply a writer who teaches, but for most she was a teacher who writes. Each new batch of students she received filled her with excitement and she looked forward to the challenges of breaking through those students’ barriers and assumptions to make them aware of new connections.”
Speakers from Wake included President Nathan Hatch, Vice President for Campus Life Penny Rue, Maya Angelou Presidential Chair Melissa Harris-Perry, Dean of Residence Life and Housing Donna McGalliard and Chief Diversity Officer Barbee Oakes. Rev. K. Monet Rice-Jalloh, associate chaplain, blessed the space.
Angelou initially came to Wake Forest on Feb 20, 1973, for a speaking engagement and joined the faculty nine years later. Wake awarded her an honorary degree in 1977.
Over the years, she taught a variety of humanities courses, including “World Poetry in Dramatic Performance,” “Race, Politics and Literature,” “African Culture and Impact on U.S.,” “Race in the Southern Experience” and “Shakespeare and the Human Condition.”
Hatch said that Angelou brought people together from her first moment on campus that night in 1973 when her lecture focused on the significance of black literature in America.
“That February night was the start of a decadeslong relationship with this university,” Hatch said. “Here she engaged us with difficult questions, deep thoughts and meaningful exchanges. She helped us to see what we had in common, instead of how we were different. She reminded us that we are all human, that we have the power to love, to laugh, forgive and to rise.”
He said that Friday was a day to celebrate Angelou, “a towering figure at Wake Forest and across the world because she so valued all people. As a great artist, she created. As a great citizen, she educated. As a great teacher, she inspired. As a great human, she loved.”
Friends of Angelou, who attended the event, said that Angelou was so deserving of the honor.
“She was a loving person who sort of brought all kinds of people into the fold,” said Velma Watts, a retired assistant dean for student affairs and associate professor of medical education at Wake.
Watts used the word “wow” to describe what she believes Angelou would say about having her name on a residence hall at Wake.
“She would shed a few tears,” Watts said.
Rosalyn McPherson said Angelou was a longtime friend of her family and that she has known her since 1964.
“She left such a legacy behind and I think that this is a wonderful way to give honor and make sure that her name goes on for many years here,” McPherson said.