Reynolds Professor of American Studies Maya Angelou will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday afternoon.
Angelou, a world-renowned poet, author, actress and civil rights activist, joined the Wake Forest faculty in 1982. She will be honored in a ceremony in the White House East Room with former president George H.W. Bush, German chancellor Angela Merkel, artist Jasper Johns and 11 others. The Medal of Freedom is the country’s highest civilian honor.
“This is fitting recognition of Dr. Angelou’s lifetime of service and creativity, and all of us at Wake Forest are very proud of her,” said Wake Forest President Nathan O. Hatch. “She has given her life in the name of creating a love of language and a keen awareness of the power of literature and learning, and generations of Wake Forest students have lived richer lives for her teaching and guidance.”
Angelou is the author of more than 30 books of fiction and poetry, from her best-selling memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” to her recently published personal cookbook, “Great Food, All Day Long, Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart.” In 1993, she delivered a poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Bill Clinton’s first Inauguration.
Angelou first visited Wake Forest in 1971 for a speaking engagement in Wait Chapel, starting what would become a long relationship with the University. She received an honorary degree from Wake Forest in 1977.
She returned to Wake Forest in 1982 as the first Reynolds Professor. In an interview in USA Today in 2008, Anglou talked about teaching: “I’m not a writer who teaches. I’m a teacher who writes. But I had to work at Wake Forest to know that.”
In 2002, the School of Medicine created The Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity to study racial and ethnic disparities in health care and outcomes. Last January, Angelou spoke at the University’s observance of Martin Luther King Day, recalling her work with King in the 1960s as northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In announcing the recipients in November, President Obama said the honorees have “lived extraordinary lives that have inspired us, enriched our culture, and made our country and our world a better place.” The White House described Angelou as “a prominent and celebrated author, poet, educator, producer, actress, filmmaker, and civil rights activist, who is currently the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. She has served on two presidential committees, was awarded the Presidential Medal for the Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008.”
The other recipients are businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett; arts advocate and former ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith; the late Dr. Tom Little, who was murdered by the Taliban last August while on a humanitarian mission in Afghanistan; U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.); cellist Yo-Yo Ma; environmental activist John H. Adams; former AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney; Holocaust survivor and humanitarian Gerda Weissmann Klein; civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez; basketball coach Bill Russell; and baseball legend Stan “The Man” Musial.
Kerry M. King (’85), Office of Communications and External Relations