Edelin, Ramona Hoage 1945–
Ramona Hoage Edelin 1945–
Ramona Hoage Edelin is an intellectual in action. Since 1988 she has been the chief executive of the National Urban Coalition. She works to bring educational opportunities to schoolchildren in urban environments and to shape a range of government urban policies from her Washington D.C. office. Edelin came to her activist career from a background in higher education. The holder of Ph.D. degree in philosophy, she made a conscious decision to put her ideals to work in the everyday world. Yet she is still widely known for an idea: Edelin introduced the term “African American” into general circulation, and may in fact have coined it.
Edelin’s educational background began with the environment of her youth. Both her grandfather and her mother were university professors. Born Ramona Hoage in Los Angeles on September 4, 1945, she moved with her parents to college campus areas in Atlanta, Georgia, Orangeburg, South Carolina, and Carbon-dale, Illinois. Her early childhood education took place at the Oglethorpe Elementary School in Atlanta, a “laboratory school” run by Atlanta University. Laboratory schools, often established in inner-city areas by institutions of higher learning, strive to implement progressive educational ideas and to develop the talents of exceptional urban youngsters. This one launched Ramona Hoage on a stellar educational career.
Graduating from the Stockbridge School in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1963, she entered Fisk University in Nashville. In the top rank of the nation’s historically African American institutions, Fisk offered a competitive environment. But she compiled an impressive record that included a B.A. (magna cum laude) in philosophy, election to Phi Beta Kappa, and numerous university honors. She graduated in 1967, and soon afterward married Kenneth Edelin, a recent graduate of Nashville’s prestigious Meharry Medical College; they divorced some years later.
Kenneth Edelin’s tour of military service sent the young couple to England, where Ramona cared for their son, Kenneth, Jr., and somehow found time to complete an M.A. degree in philosophy at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Returning to the United States, she enrolled in the doctoral program in philosophy at Boston University and settled on the writings of the pioneering black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois as a dissertation topic. In a 1996 interview with Emerge she recalled that “what I needed to do was prove to a department of philosophy that, in fact, Dr. Du Bois was a philosopher.” “I don’t think anybody has said as well [as Du Bois], let alone better, what our reality is,” she added.
Edelin’s academic career was off to an impressive start
At a Glance…
Born September 4, 1945 in Los Angeles; only child of George and Annette Hoage. Married Kenneth Edelin, a physician, ca. 1967 (later divorced); children Kenneth, Jr., Kimberley. Education: B.A., Fisk University, 1967; M.A., University of East Anglia (Norwich, England), 1969; Ph.D, Boston University, 1981.
Career: Chief executive officer of action and advocacy organization. Joined faculty of Northeastern University, 1972; contributed to founding and naming of program in African American Studies, early 1970s, possibly originating term “African American” at that time; became program chairperson, 1974; moved to Washington, D.C., 1977, as executive assistant to president, National Urban Coalition; named director of operations, 1979; named vice president of operations, 1981; named vice president of programs and policy, 1982; became chief executive officer, 1988; promoted usage of term “African American” in meeting with Rev. Jesse Jackson, its key popularizer, 1988; headed commission promoting appointment of African American women at beginning of Clinton administration, 1992; spearheaded Say YES to a Youngster’s Future educational program, late 1980s-.
Awards: Phi Beta Kappa, Fisk University, 1967; “Women to Watch” Ebony magazine, 1982.
Addresses: National Urban Coalition, 727 15th St. NW, 9th floor, Washington, DC 20005.
even before she completed her dissertation and received the Ph.D. degree in 1981. She taught at various institutions in the Boston area: Emerson College, Brandéis University, and Northeastern University, where she founded and chaired the school’s program in “African American Studies,” a new description that diverged from the usual “Afro-American Studies” and “Black Studies” usages of the time. “I had also used it in my scholarship for years before that,” she told Emerge.
While the precise moment of the new term’s coinage is unknown, Edelin several times took crucial steps toward gaining for it the attention of the general public. The most important of these steps was raising the issue at a December 1988 meeting of black leaders chaired by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson adopted the “African American” usage, paving the way for its general acceptance. As a result, Jackson has sometimes been credited as the originator of the term, but Edelin recalled in the Emerge interview that initial press reports of the meeting correctly attributed the idea to her. She continued to argue in favor of the adoption of “African American,” telling Ebony in 1989 that “[c]alling ourselves African Americans is the first step in the cultural offensive. Our cultural renaissance can change our lot in the nation and around the world.”
As might be gathered from that statement, the focus of Edelin’s efforts in life had changed fundamentally since the days of her academic career in the 1970s. To put it simply, she had begun to hunger for concrete applications of her ideas. As she put it in the Emerge interview, “I … saw the opportunity to apply much of what I had developed intellectually to help, because I am just despairing of the condition of our people. When I say despairing, I simply mean that I decided that I had to do what I could do about it.” In 1977 she took what must have been a drastic step: she relinquished her position at Northeastern and joined the National Urban Coalition as an executive assistant to then president Carl Holman.
The NUC had been founded in 1967 in response to the riots that paralyzed many large American cities in the summer of that year, and it proved a perfect fit with Ramona Hoage Edelin’s new ambitions. She rose steadily through the ranks, becoming director of operations in 1979, vice president of operations in 1982, and chief executive officer in 1988. The organization aimed to make policy recommendations that benefited inner cities, and under Edelin’s tenure has particularly emphasized the implementation of innovative educational programs that work to open up opportunities for inner-city young people. As of 1996, Edelin oversaw educational, economic, and leadership development programs in 32 cities in 19 states.
The NUC’s largest program is Say YES to a Youngster’s Future, which works in 100 schools nationwide to bring up-to-date math, science, and technology instruction not only to young students, but to their families and teachers as well. Other programs include the M. Carl Holman Leadership Development Institute (a think tank that brings together leaders of diverse organizations to explore ways in which they might affect the course of public policy) and the Executive Leadership Program, which attempts to instill leadership qualities into selected students.
Edelin’s profile grew higher through the 1990s. A familiar face in official Washington, she chaired a National Political Congress of Black Women commission established in 1992 in an effort to place black women in prominent positions within the administration of President Bill Clinton. Journalists often sought her out for opinions, especially on issues facing African American young people, and in 1998 she participated in a Black Entertainment Television roundtable discussion entitled “Empowering Our Communities: A Talk with Vice President Al Gore.” Through the late 1990s, Ramona Hoage Edelin continued to work on the front lines of change, as a committed thinker and doer.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.
Ebony, July 1989, p. 76.
Emerge, September 1996, pp. 34–37.
Jet, January 16, 1989, p. 53; December 21, 1992, p. 5.
Omaha World Herald, April 8, 1990, p. 14A.
Washington Post, April 2, 1998.
—James M. Manheim
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