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Rutgers honors late professor Cheryl Wall during memorial service on Saturday

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Cheryl Wall, who had taught at Rutgers since 1972 and died in April 2020, was honored on Saturday during a memorial service.  – Photo by Rutgers.edu

On Saturday, Rutgers held a memorial service for Cheryl Wall, the Board of Governors Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English, at Voorhees Chapel on Douglass campus.

Wall, who began teaching at the University in 1972 and was one of the first Black women to lead an English department at a major research university, died on April 4, 2020. 

Due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic restrictions, Rutgers was unable to plan and execute an in-person service in the late professor’s honor until this year.

Speakers at Wall’s memorial service on Saturday reflected on their personal experiences with Wall as well as her impact as a longtime professor at Rutgers and one of the nation’s foremost scholars of and Black literature and feminist criticism.

University President Jonathan Holloway spoke at the service, stating that despite never having met Wall, he was well aware of her ground-breaking achievements as an expert on the works of Black women writers.

After being named University president in January 2020, he said that he was excited to personally meet with Wall and learn from her as he began his new role. When Wall died that April, Holloway realized he would never be able to fulfill this wish.

“The academic community lost a giant on April 4, 2020, Rutgers lost one of its leading citizen-scholars and I lost a future mentor,” he said.

Afterward, organizers played a recording of a speech from Mary Schmidt Campbell, president of Spelman College. She said that she first knew Wall as a friend and neighbor, then an academic and champion of Black women.

“Wall was a brilliant scholar of English literature," she said. "To read anything by her is to be greeted with language that is luminous in its clarity and provocative in the way that it challenges and critiques the status quo.”

Campbell said that Wall's strong authority in writing contributed to the recognition of the work of Black women writers over her 50-year career.

She said that, upon arriving at Spelman College, she was overjoyed to see that Wall's recognition of Black women writers was well known and often referenced among women at the school.

“She was a standard-bearer whose work stood for excellence and rigorous scholarship, and she was someone who everyone who knew her referred to as kind,” Campbell said.

In addition, she said Wall was committed to celebrating Black culture, as evidenced by her becoming the inaugural chair of the Crossroads Theater Company, a theatre company in New Brunswick.

Wall was instrumental in the company’s success, using her knowledge of Black theatre to put on a rich repertoire of productions by playwrights such as ​​Charles Fuller and George C. Wolfe, Campbell said.

Ricardo Khan, a co-founder of the Crossroads Theatre Company, also spoke at the service, reflecting on the support that Wall provided the company during its early days.

“To us, (Wall) was a masterclass — a class and lesson of integrity, honesty, fierceness, intelligent, brilliant beauty, self-pride and a love for her culture, art and the assured calm she was always known for,” he said.

In addition to the memorial service, Rutgers hosted a symposium, “Changing Our Own Futures: Black Feminist Theory & Criticism,” in honor of Wall’s work last Thursday and Friday, according to a press release.

The University has also founded the Dr. Cheryl A. Wall Memorial Fellowship, which will give funding to doctoral candidates researching African American and Black literature, Black feminism or interdisciplinary studies.

Wall’s legacy at Rutgers will continue through the efforts of Camara Epps, her daughter, who is working to use approximately 2,000 books from her mother’s personal collection to establish the Cheryl A. Wall reading room in the Paul Robeson Cultural Center on Busch campus, according to the first release.

“These works represent my mother’s life of reading, writing, analyzing and elevating the voices and intellectual contributions of Black authors,” Epps said. “We wanted to give her books to a place where they would be used in honor of her legacy.”


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