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Ramona Edelin (Photo courtesy of NNPA)
Stacy M. Brown NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent
Published: 27 March 2024

 Once upon a time, Black Americans were simply known as colored people, or Negroes. That is until Ramona Edelin came along. The activist, renowned for her pivotal roles in advancing civil rights, education reform, and community empowerment, died at her D.C. residence last month at the age of 78. Her death, finally confirmed this week by Barnaby Towns, a communications strategist who collaborated with Dr. Edelin, was attributed to cancer.

Born on September 4, 1945, in Los Angeles, California, Edelin’s early years were marked by a commitment to education and social justice. According to her HistoryMakers biography, after graduating from Fisk University with a Bachelor’s degree in 1967, she pursued further studies at the University of East Anglia in England. She earned her master’s degree before completing her Ph.D. at Boston University in 1981.

Edelin’s contributions to academia and activism were manifold. She was pivotal in popularizing the term “African American” alongside Rev. Jesse L. Jackson in the late 1980s. 

Jackson had announced the preference for “African American,” speaking for summit organizers that included Dr. Edelin. “Just as we were called Colored, but were not that, and then Negro, but not that, to be called Black is just as baseless,” he said, adding that “African American” “has cultural integrity” and “puts us in our proper historical context.”  

Later, Edelin told Ebony magazine, “Calling ourselves African Americans is the first step in the cultural offensive,” while linking the name change to a “cultural renaissance” in which Black Americans reconnected with their history and heritage.

“Who are we if we don’t acknowledge our motherland?” she asked later. “When a child in a ghetto calls himself African American, immediately he’s international. You’ve taken him from the ghetto and put him on the globe.”

The HistoryMakers bio noted that Edelin’s academic pursuits led her to found and chair the Department of African American Studies at Northeastern University, where she established herself as a leading voice.

Transitioning from academia to advocacy, Edelin joined the National Urban Coalition in 1977, eventually ascending to president and CEO. During her tenure, she spearheaded initiatives such as the “Say Yes to a Youngster’s Future” program, which provided crucial support in math, science, and technology to youth and teachers of color in urban areas. Her biography noted that Edelin’s efforts extended nationwide through partnerships with organizations like the National Science Foundation and the United States Department of Education.

President Bill Clinton recognized Edelin’s expertise by appointing her to the Presidential Board on Historically Black Colleges and Universities in 1998. She also co-founded and served as treasurer of the Black Leadership Forum, solidifying her standing as a respected leader in African American communities.

Beyond her professional achievements, Edelin dedicated herself to numerous boards and committees, including chairing the District of Columbia Educational Goals 2000 Panel and contributing to the Federal Advisory Committee for the Black Community Crusade for Children.

Throughout her life, Edelin received widespread recognition for her contributions. Ebony magazine honored her as one of the 100 Most Influential Black Americans, and she received prestigious awards such as the Southern Christian Leadership Award for Progressive Leadership and the IBM Community Executive Program Award.

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