• Lillie Burke

First African-American Belmont grad talks college experience, passion for higher education

During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Belmont was making history by accepting African-American students for the first time. Now, 47 years later, Belmont’s first African-American graduate is back and will host a convocation Wednesday morning.

Fannie Hewlett graduated from Belmont in 1970 and double-majored in psychology and English. She later went on to get her master’s from Fisk University and then her doctorate from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 1990. Since then, Hewlett has been highly involved in higher education, which she considers her passion.

“I feel like the way for upward mobility, the way we are going to make an impact, is really through education,” said Hewlett. “Getting exposure and staying abreast with everything in the world.”

The last time Hewlett was at Belmont was in the mid-1990s. Belmont’s progress since then is enormous. New buildings, new majors and new students all have a place in Belmont’s new vision.

“When I came back that time, I hadn’t been back since I graduated,” said Hewlett. “Everything’s new.”

Hewlett is from a small town called Bay Minette, Alabama. She went to a segregated high school in a very rural area. When Gov. George Wallace established a junior college, Hewlett attended with a lot of her classmates for two years, then found her way to Belmont.

“To come into an environment like Belmont offered me was a saving grace,” said Hewlett. “I did it because God placed me here. It was the best experience that I could have had as a little country girl who hadn’t been that far away from home and didn’t even know where Nashville, Tennessee was.”

Belmont, was ahead of the time, Hewlett said. As a private Christian college, Belmont was under no obligation to accept African-American students, but it did.

“They’ve always been willing to step out in front of the curve and not wait behind until somebody else takes the first step,” she said. “They’ve always been out there willing to take a chance.”

Belmont didn’t stop in the 1970s when it came to keeping up with social changes – it continues to do so today. With student organizations ranging from the Black Student Association, the Hispanic Student Association and Bridge Builders, more and more students are finding somewhere to belong.

“I am really, really proud of the steps Belmont’s taking to look at the future and see the need to make the college look like what the world is going to look like,” Hewlett said. “That’s what’s going to help you all. That’s what Belmont is doing.”

If there’s one thing Hewlett lives by, it’s to take your life into your own hands. If you could live with the worst that could possibly happen, take the chance, she said.

“Throw away the word ‘can’t.’ You can do whatever it is you set your mind to. Chart your own course,” she said. “You’re going to run into obstacles. Some of them you will be able to navigate around, some you’ll jump over, some of them you’ll go under, some of them will knock you down. Get up.”

If any student is interested in hearing more about Hewlett’s educational experience and her career in higher learning, she will be hosting a convocation Wednesday at 10 a.m. in WAC 4094.

“We want to celebrate her accomplishments. She paved the way. She was one of the people who paved the way for me,” said Susan West, university vice president and chief of staff. “We hadn’t met until several months ago, but it happened because of those individuals who were ready to be bold.”

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