UC professor LaVerne Summerlin celebrates over 50 years

Faculty member to be recognized at 2022 Onyx & Ruby gala for influence and inspiration

By Bryn Dippold

Only 15 years before professor of English LaVerne Summerlin joined the University of Cincinnati's faculty, Rosa Parks took her place on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and changed history.

With the country on the cusp of seismic civil rights change, Summerlin joined UC’s faculty in 1970 and since has exerted her own quiet influence on classes, academic programs and campus culture — changing history in her own way.

UC professor of English LaVerne Summerlin celebrates 50 years on faculty.

UC professor of English LaVerne Summerlin celebrates 50 years on faculty.

Summerlin will be honored at UC’s 2022 Onyx & Ruby Gala, which each year recognizes the achievements of Black alumni, faculty and staff for their achievements at UC. She will receive the Tower of Strength Award for shaping students’ personal and professional development.

During the course of her career, Summerlin has received more than 20 educational and teaching awards, including the university-wide Dolly Cohen Award of Teaching Excellence, and the National ACT Continuing Education Award for Oral Communications for the World-of-Work.

Her community activism includes involvement in the Links, Inc. Reading and Writing Program for Inner City Youth, the Adult Basic Education Advisory Committee for Cincinnati Public Schools, and the Great Rivers Girl Scout Council.

'UC's Rosa Parks'

When the university needed an English course for engineering students, Summerlin designed the program, adding an African-American literature component to the class. And when poet and author Maya Angelou—Summerlin’s contemporary and one of her favorite writers—visited UC as a speaker, Summerlin picked her up from the airport.

Summerlin, with characteristic humility, adds: “I go to church on Sunday, and people tease me,” Summerlin says. “They say well, I could just sit at home and read Maya because she’s an inspiration to me.”

Role models like Maya Angelou and discipline learned at a young age have fueled Summerlin through her five decades at UC, whether it was when she designed the Emerging Ethnic Engineers program more than 30 years ago, or through co-directing the Urban Initiatives Language Education Program, which introduced local Cincinnati K-12 teachers to African American and Appalachian writers.

Michelle Holley, assistant professor educator of English and one of Summerlin’s colleagues, calls Summerlin "UC’s Rosa Parks."

Summerlin joined UC’s campus not long after UC was integrated, Holley recalls. “She was teaching predominantly white students, but she did it and has done it with so much grace and humility and intelligence,” Holley says. “And she has mentored so many students, regardless of color or creed.”

For her entire life, she has integrated every institution that she's ever been a part of.

Michelle Holley, Assistant Professor Educator of English

Summerlin broke gender barriers as well as race barriers when she was the first black female student to study at Edgecliff College, then a private Catholic women’s college in Cincinnati which has since merged with Xavier University. At the time, Xavier didn’t allow female students into their undergraduate programs, but the graduate programs did. Summerlin received her Master of Education degree in English at Xavier.

“For her entire life, she has integrated every institution that she’s ever been a part of,” Holley says.

Lifelong learner

Summerlin’s productivity has remained a constant in her life, beginning with her Catholic school education in at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Cincinnati’s West End. A lifelong reader and mentor, Summerlin worked in the library, and refereed and umpired basketball, volleyball, kickball and football in her high school years.

Drawing from her Catholic education, Summerlin wrote and released a book titled “Gems of Cincinnati’s West End: Black Children and Catholic Missionaries, 1940-1970” in 2020. For the book, she interviewed 100 alumni and/or parents of alumni who were educated in inner-city Catholic schools between 1940-1970. With this book, Summerlin highlighted the effects of a Catholic education on Black children during that time, which she states was high quality.

“My parents split when I was in fifth grade, and my mother turned to the Catholic Church for help,” she says. “They delivered in the quality of education that they gave us.”

Mentor and advocate

After graduating college, Summerlin went on to teach at Taft High School, where she helped to diversify the curriculum and help young Black students to succeed academically.

Since then, Summerlin’s role as a teacher and mentor has extended from students to undergraduate and graduate assistants.

UC graduate Briana Yates, current director of an environmentally focused nonprofit in Michigan, worked with Summerlin while Summerlin was researching a book on Appalachian culture. “It was an amazing opportunity,” Yates says. “You weren’t just working, you were learning. She is a brilliant woman first and foremost.”

When asked if she had any plans to retire soon, she responds with characteristic grace: “I’ve been here for 50 years, and I still love it,” she says. “I think it’s important for me to do something productive.”

Featured image at top: Students gather on UC's uptown campus in 1970 during a time when activism was common. Credit/UC yearbook The Cincinnatian, 1970.