A special community of Black educators, entrepreneurs, businesspeople and activists came together in Harlem this weekend (Saturday, November 21) to celebrate the 90th birthday of Queen Mother Dr. Adelaide L. Sanford.
Distinguished teacher, professor, historian, orator, freedom fighter and Vice Chancellor Emerita, Board of Regents, University of the State of New York, Dr. Sanford is truly (in the words of Assemblyman Albert Vann, who sponsored her for the Regents Board in 1986) “a maverick who plucked the system.”
The seated affair was held at Mist in Harlem; an “African-American owned venue,” noted by Dr. Sanford in her celebratory speech. Family members, colleagues and former students were in attendance to pay tribute to their Queen Mother, including Publisher of The Source, L. Londell McMillan.
“The Beloved Dr. Adelaide Sanford is a heroine and living legend. We can point to many direct people, places and things that she has personally and wonderfully empowered,” McMillan says. “Her special powers come from her faith in God, love for her people, mastery in communication, and her unwavering commitment to educating the community and world. She is a master teacher and will go down in history as one of the greatest educators of all time. I’m grateful and proud to be one of her students and one of her sons.
“Having a personal relationship with Queen Mother Adelaide is tantamount to having a relationship with infinite power and roots of culture,” McMillan continues. “She is also beautiful, stylish and sweet. Her impact on my life is immeasurable, because she believed in me at an early age. She added love and purpose to my life. As a teacher then principal of PS 21 in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, just across the street from my mother’s beauty salon, she built a curriculum and set the bar so high, it made her students strive for excellence. Coming from a family that had little education about our African culture, I had limited knowledge of the royal culture and history of Black people. Queen Mother Adelaide educated many students for years and inserted her own curriculum of cultural inclusion to give her students knowledge of self and purpose. She was one of my teachers who turned a restless young man into a scholar and leader. There are many lessons I attribute to her love and teachings. If I had to pick one, it would be her encouragement to be great and work to help our people and community better understand the royalty and divinity within our blood as people of African ancestry. Wow, what a wonderful and loving teaching. I remain forever grateful and happy to celebrate her 90 years birthday! We will keep on celebrating Queen Mother and keep learning from her life’s works.”
Dr. Sanford’s educational legacy is as broad as her mega-watt smile. In 1965 (the same year she marched in Selma with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), she was appointed Assistant Principal of PS 21, The Crispus Attucks School. Two years later she became Acting Principal and for the next 19 years, Dr. Sanford took what was the lowest performing school in the district to the highest performing school in the state of New York. “There can be no excellence without cultural excellence” was (and is) her mantra to students and faculty on the importance of knowledge of self.
“We took every White image off the walls [at PS 21]. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and more,” reflected Dr. Sanford. “Those people made war, and we were teaching our children not to fight. We had to have images on our walls of peacemakers.”
Leaders motivate by action, not simply words. Dr. Sanford would often take teaching staff to visit local housing projects in Brooklyn, to bridge the gap between the school and the parents of its students. She visited numerous prisons throughout the years, going as far as to jump on train tracks to protest various community causes and even being strip-searched by police as an elder in defiance.
Bestowed the title of Queen Mother during a 1992 trip to the Upper Volta region of Ghana, Dr. Adelaide Sanford was “Brooklyn’s Finest” decades before the Notorious B.I.G and Jay-Z verbalized the notion. Born, raised and educated in the borough, Dr. Sanford started her decorated teaching career at P.S. 28 on Herkimer Street in 1950. She was the first African-American teacher in the school who wasn’t a special education teacher, and spent lunchtimes confined to her classroom because the teachers’ cafeteria was for “whites only.”
“She’s got more honorary doctorates than most of us have thoughts,” joked Dr. James McIntosh during the birthday festivities. McIntosh is a former student of Dr. Sanford’s and Member of the Board For The Education Of People Of African Ancestry [BEPAA]. Founded by Queen Mother in 1990, BEPAA provides programs and services for students, parents and educational staff. “There was a Jewish Board, a Catholic Board, all these Boards—yet nothing to represent and stand for us. It had to be done,” Dr. Sanford explained.
The Queen Mother, sprightly as ever heading into her 91st year, leaves a lasting lesson on the importance of not only adorning your cultural heritage with pride, but carrying it forth for future generations. “I wear beads and bangles in my hair to represent the okra seeds and yam tubers our ancestors kept in theirs as they traveled here from home,” she said gently but powerfully. “We must pass on these things to the next generation, and always give them something to hold onto.”