This spring marked the 50th anniversary of the graduation of Edna Lowe Swift ’71, whose legacy looms large as the first Black graduate of Agnes Scott College. Being the first of anything bears a heavy weight of responsibility and attention, which Swift has carried with grace throughout the years. A well-known and respected member of the community, she has made an impact seen and felt by all who have followed her and never more strongly so than now as the college sets its course toward justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.
Racial unrest was boiling over in America during what became known as the “long, hot summer of 1967,” with riots and protests erupting in Black communities in major cities across the country in response to racial discrimination, unemployment, poverty, crime, housing inequities and police brutality. Atlanta was one of those cities and had always reflected a long, complex history — one of segregation and racial violence and one of Black progress and excellence. That summer, the world was full of turmoil, but it was also full of possibility as the promise of change was in the air, and it was in this climate that Swift faced a tough decision as a high school senior.
Swift’s outstanding performance at Booker T. Washington High School — Georgia’s first public high school for Black students and the alma mater of many influential Black leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. — garnered her acceptance at both Spelman College and Morris Brown College, where her closest friends were going. For Swift, it would make sense for her to attend one of these distinguished institutions of the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of leading private historically Black colleges and universities. Still, she had also been offered a substantial scholarship to attend Agnes Scott. Just two years earlier, Gay Johnson McDougall ’69x, H ’10, whose mother taught at Swift’s storied high school and who was from her Southwest Atlanta neighborhood, had integrated the prestigious women’s college in 1965.
The courageous young woman was undeterred by the fact that Agnes Scott had lagged years behind the state’s public and most of its private colleges in accepting Black students and that McDougall had left after one year due to her negative experiences on campus. Swift was fascinated with other cultures and was adventurous, and although Decatur was only 10 miles from her home, it felt like a world away. Her mother and grandmother both encouraged her to enroll in the newly integrated college, where she planned to major in Spanish. She arrived on campus in the fall of 1967 as a day student, which required her to take four buses each day. Students were polite to Swift, but as one of two Black students for the first two years, she did not feel welcomed into campus life. However, she befriended other day students and forged relationships with them as they studied and relaxed together in the day students’ lounge, The Hub and other campus spaces. Between classes she worked in the dormitory department as a clerical aide to satisfy the work-study requirement with many Black staff members who were always encouraging and kind. Despite her loneliness, Swift never complained and was determined to graduate. Coming of age during the civil of its private colleges in accepting Black students and that McDougall had left after one year due to her negative experiences on campus. Swift was fascinated with other cultures and was adventurous, and although Decatur was only 10 miles from her home, it felt like a world away. Her mother and grandmother both encouraged her to enroll in the newly integrated college, where she planned to major in Spanish. She arrived on campus in the fall of 1967 as a day student, which required her to take four buses each day. Students were polite to Swift, but as one of two Black students for the first two years, she did not feel welcomed into campus life. However, she befriended other day students and forged relationships with them as they studied and relaxed together in the day students’ lounge, The Hub and other campus spaces. Between classes she worked in the dormitory department as a clerical aide to satisfy the work-study requirement with many Black staff members who were always encouraging and kind. Despite her loneliness, Swift never complained and was determined to graduate. Coming of age during the civil rights movement, she understood the significance of her presence at Agnes Scott.
Strong support at home and close connections with her high school friends who were attending the historically Black colleges of the Atlanta University Center are what helped Swift stay the course, says her daughter Shanika Dawn Swift ’93.
“My mother wanted to meet new people and have new experiences. It was a bold move, especially during the racial climate of that era. Living at home helped my mother keep a balance,” she notes.
“My grandmother is strong-willed and had the perseverance to finish her education at an all-white institution. No matter what she faced, she powered through,” adds her granddaughter Tori Cervantes ’18.
Throughout her studies at Agnes Scott, Swift, petite and quiet, made a memorable impression. In 1968, first-year Belita Stafford Walker ’72, who became the college’s second Black graduate, met her in the day students’ lounge.
“We hit it off instantly,” she says. “She seemed so glamorous to me as a Spanish major. She was hip and cool, and I loved her dry sense of humor. I looked up to her because Edna was going her own way.”
Swift advised Walker on issues with professors and on what she could expect. “Just knowing that she was there and available if I needed her was reassuring,” says Walker.
“When she got her college ring, I couldn’t wait to get mine. We had a mutual, unspoken understanding of being the only African-American students on campus. It was a bond of purpose. We were there to gain an education and complete our education.” Although they did not often see each other on campus, they pledged Delta Sigma Theta sorority together at Spelman, visited each other’s homes and eventually got back in touch after graduation — a friendship that continues today.
At Agnes Scott, Swift excelled in her major, and she was selected to participate in a study abroad program in Mexico. That experience kicked off a lifelong passion for travel and solidified her love of the language and Spanish culture. She taught at Atlanta Public Schools for 28 years, during which she sponsored students on nine study abroad trips. In 2000, the Embassy of Spain presented Swift with a scholarship, and she earned her master’s degree in Spanish language and culture at the University of Salamanca. She retired in 2005.
“The gift that Edna gave to us came with a cost to her in terms of her experiences on campus as one of the first Black students,” says Robiaun Charles, vice president for college advancement. “Today, Agnes Scott prides itself on its representative racial and ethnic diversity, but beyond just having a diverse student body, we are committed to the success of our students, which includes graduation. Edna’s decision was groundbreaking and paved the way for where we are today.”
Swift’s daughter Shanika received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Agnes Scott, and her granddaughter Tori, following closely in her grandmother’s footsteps, received a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. Shanika went on to earn an MBA from Mercer University and is the director of research operations for NEPC, an investment consulting firm, while Tori handles logistics and customer service for Bover, an international lighting company based in Spain.
Shanika recalls how much diversity at the college had changed from when she was a student versus when her mother was, but there was still a way to go.
“The campus was far more diverse by 1989 through 1994, but only about 6% to10% of the population was Black,” she says.
“I was one of only two Black math majors. The other one became my daughter’s godmother.”
There was no organized support for Black students at Agnes Scott until Students for Black Awareness formed during the 1976-1977 academic year, with about 15 members.
“Its mission was to educate white Scotties about the needs and concerns of Black students, and to celebrate unity through diversity and promote academic excellence,” says Damaris Billups, a sophomore from Augusta, Georgia, who serves as the historian for Witkaze, the name adopted by the Black student organization in the early 1990s.
“By 2021, 341 students — more than 35% of the student body — identified as Black or African- American. That’s remarkable when you consider that the class of 1973 didn’t graduate any Black students.”
Despite the strides made in diversity among Agnes Scott’s student body, work remains to be done. “The experience of every Black Scottie I’ve encountered has some element of microaggressions around [their] major, housing or campus safety,” says Billups, noting that one of the deciding factors in her choice to attend was the breadth of campus organizations devoted to diversity. “Microaggressions are not rare, but the school has been very intentional about diversity and creating support structures and systems that allow Black students to be successful. Black students are involved in leadership in every aspect of campus life.”
Today, 50 years after Swift crossed a stage on a warm day in May to accept her degree, Agnes Scott is recognized nationally for its diverse student population, an achievement for which she laid the path. Several years ago, the college established the Edna Lowe Swift Trailblazer Award, which is given each year during the Mosaic Awards Banquet to a faculty or staff member in recognition of their contribution to creating a more inclusive community at Agnes Scott. And at this year’s Alumnae Weekend, Swift’s classmates honored her during their 50th reunion with plans for another special celebratory program on campus in the fall, including a commemorative bench dedication.
“Edna paved the way for Black students to graduate from Agnes Scott by providing an example of doing so, like a beacon of light at the end of a tunnel,” says Tomiko Jenkins, senior associate dean of students and a 2017 recipient of the Edna Lowe Swift Trailbazer Award. “She forged a pathway of success as the first Black graduate 50 years ago, and fast-forward to today, the student population at the college is 63.2% students of color.”
“Edna personifies exactly the aim that we have for our graduates: a strong leader who is dedicated to community and excellence and who is willing to take risks when an important goal is at stake,” says President Leocadia I. Zak. “We’re proud of her lasting legacy, and we’re excited to honor her and to mark as a community this significant occasion in Agnes Scott’s history.”
Tori says that her grandmother is proud of the work the college has done on diversity and inclusion over the past 50 years since her graduation.
“She thinks it’s great that there are now students of every ethnicity and that her graduating led to all of this happening,” says the third-generation Scottie, who hopes her two young daughters will carry on the family legacy. “She loves that there is an award named after her and given to trailblazers. Few people get the opportunity to be part of history, and she’s proud of being the first Black student to graduate from Agnes Scott. She is a pioneer for minority women.”