What’s Passed Down

What’s Passed Down

By Catherine Onyemelukwe, Team Westport


In late May my husband and I attended our grandson’s graduation from Cornell. Our daughter Beth and her husband Kelvin got to the graduation early to hold seats. They got places in the eighth row up, right behind reserved seats for legacy families.

We sat right behind the Gellerts. At least thirty people were in the group. They all wore red T-shirts. On the back were the names, years, and in most cases the degrees, of all the Gellerts who had graduated from Cornell.

The earliest was 1927. The list ended with Jason, TBD.

It was fun to see. They were having a lovely time.

But it also reminded me of the privilege that can get passed down through generations to some of us and denied to others, specifically denied to people of color.

At the end of the U.S. Civil War freed slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule. The promise was not fulfilled. Starting with nothing, former slaves who had been denied an education had to make a living.

Very few Black people were even admitted to Ivy League colleges and universities in the 1920’s when the first Gellerts attended. There has been little or no opportunity to develop legacies like theirs. As many white people became property owners during the last century, Black people were denied mortgages, so had little access to property ownership. There are so many other instances of injustice.

But I kept thinking, is it fair?

Catherine Onyemelukwe, CFRE, served in the Peace Corps, taught and ran her own company in Nigeria before returning to earn her MBA at Yale. She is a volunteer fundraiser for her Mt. Holyoke class.  She chairs the Racial Justice Task Force at her Unitarian Church and serves on the board of the Unitarian-Universalist United Nations Office.


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