SPARTANBURG, S.C. – The beauty of women of color – both historic figures and everyday women – often is overlooked. Two Wofford College juniors have decided to change that, creating a photography exhibition, “Still I Rise: Wofford Women of Color,” featuring college students portraying influential African-American women.

The exhibit, which will be on display in the game room of the Campus Life Building Monday, March 31, through Friday, May 9, is the work of Katie Harmon, a junior from Camdenton, Mo., who is studying art history with a concentration in studio art, and Kessie Blassengale, a junior from Greenville, S.C., studying philosophy and English.

The students came together with a desire to help honor black women, a minority group that often feels rejected by mainstream media. “I’ve been on this women’s empowerment kick for the last couple of months,” Harmon says. “I wanted to continue and I felt like the African-American womanhood persona isn’t celebrated enough, or if it is, it isn’t done in a personal way.”

Previously, Harmon painted a mural of powerful women on an abandoned building on Brawley Street in Spartanburg.

“We didn’t go for typical people like Harriet Tubman,” Blassengale says, noting that she and Harmon chose instead to focus on lesser known, but equally inspirational, women of color. They wanted to expose Wofford to powerful women that many students may not have heard of before.

The purpose of the project is to promote diversity and to empower women of all colors and creeds to see their own potential mirrored in powerful women of the past, Harmon says, adding that the women depicted were chosen because of the strong characteristics they embody.

Collectively, the women featured have received a wide range of awards and honors that recognize their intellectual, artistic and athletic talents and achievements. More important than their achievements are the values that these women held, they add, noting that the women valued equality for all, often fighting for gay rights and equal representation for all races in popular media. Their actions and achievements show how they embody strength, intelligence, talent and hard work, the students note.

“If we are able as a society to look at the past and strive for the greatness that has come before us, then we will achieve anything,” Harmon adds.

Blassengale says her favorite featured woman is Marian Wright Edelman “because she was a lawyer and represents the all-American story. She picked herself up by her bootstraps. She developed the Children’s Defense Fund and helped with a lot of children’s rights.” Edelman is portrayed by Upendo Makali, a senior.

Blassengale is featured in the project, portraying Phylicia Rashad, best known for her role as Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.”

The photos were taken in Wofford’s art studio with Blassengale acting as artistic director while Harmon took the photographs.

They wanted to display the beauty of African-American women at Wofford, so they sought students willing to portray these women. “I feel like we get overlooked a lot since we are such a minority and I really want people to appreciate all the diversity and culture on this campus,” Blassengale says.

The artists hope to display the internal and external beauty of the women of Wofford, while inspiring the rest of the Wofford community to see and appreciate their beauty. “The women at Wofford are so beautiful, they’re gorgeous,” Harmon adds. “I hope people see the characteristics that these women have.

Blassengale adds, “We want people to see themselves in these women.”

Assisting the students with the project were Dean of Students Roberta Bigger; Dr. Mark Ferguson, associate professor and chair of theatre; and Kristofer Neely, assistant professor and coordinator of studio art.

The 19 Wofford students, along with their class years and hometowns, featured in the gallery, and the women they portray, are:

Elizabeth Anderson (2014, Fort Lawn, S.C.) – Dorothy Dandridge
Orvenie Bernardin (2014, Lithonia, Ga.) – Nina Simone
Kessie Blassengale (2015, Greenville, S.C.) – Phylicia Rashad
Asantewaa Boateng (2014, Sumter, S.C.) – Lola Falana
Tanae Copeland (2016, Inman, S.C.) – Zora Neal Hurston
Alexandria (Alex) Dawson (2014, Grand Blanc, Mich.) – Debbie Allen
Rakiya Faulkner (2015, Lancaster, S.C.) – Billie Holiday
Jordan Frazier (2016, Norcross, Ga.) – Ruby Dee
Helena Fulmore (2016, North Charleston, S.C.) – Josephine Baker
Shakirah Hill (2014, Duncan, S.C.) – Coretta Scott King
Aliyah Johnson (2016, Richmond Hill, Ga.) – Eartha Kitt
Khadijah Joyner (2016, Charlotte, N.C.) – Donyale Luna
Upendo Makali (2014, Mauldin, S.C.) – Marian Wright Edelman
Savannah Robinson (2016, Hartsville, S.C.) – Ella Fitzgerald
Becky Salami (2015, Greenville, S.C.) – Gwendolyn Brooks
Kionie Sanders (2016, Lancaster, S.C.) – Dorothy Height
Jarice Thompson (2016, Columbia, S.C.) – Maya Angelou
Kaila Washington (2017, Weston, Fla.) – Patricia Bath
Kentra Washington (2017, Simpsonville, S.C.) – Florence Joyner

Written by Becky Salami, Class of 2015