The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Marceline Catlett delivers Black History Month Keynote address

5 min read

Catlett is the superintendent of Fredericksburg City Public Schools. | University of Mary Washington


Senior Writer

On Feb. 9, the University of Mary Washington hosted Marceline Catlett as the speaker for the 2022 Black History Month keynote program. The James Farmer Multicultural Center (JFMC)  and the Black Student Association (BSA) hosted the event, co-sponsored by the College of Education. 

The Black History Month Celebration, including the keynote program, is part of the Multicultural Center’s annual Cultural Awareness Series. This is the 28th year for the series, as the university has been celebrating Black History Month for close to 30 years, according to James Farmer Multicultural Center Director Marion Sanford.

Native to the Fredericksburg area, Catlett has worked with Fredericksburg City Public Schools since 1981 and was elected to be the school system’s 25th Division Superintendent in 2019. 

“JFMC is honored to have Dr. Catlett as a friend and supporter of the programs and services we provide to the campus and broader community,” said Sanford. “She has a long-standing meaningful and positive relationship with the University as a whole.”

Catlett began her speech by emphasizing the importance of Black History Month. UMW’s theme, “Healing Through History: Recognizing Our Struggles While Celebrating Our Triumphs,” aims to present students with an opportunity to lift spirits and share in the healing processes with others. She emphasized the importance of recognizing and learning from struggle in order to truly celebrate Black excellence. 

“Activist Marcus Garvey is quoted as saying, ‘A people without knowledge of its past is like a tree without roots,’” said Catlett, “A tree cannot withstand high winds without roots. A tree cannot store nutrients without roots. Just like the tree, a race of people will not survive long. As an African American woman, knowing my history has formulated who I am. Knowing Black History has molded, equipped and anchored me in knowledge, self-worth, pride and competence.”

Catlett then shared her experiences as a child of the Civil Rights Movement and a teenager of the Black Power Revolution, as well as stories from her journey into the professional world, where she has made history as the first African American superintendent of Fredericksburg City Schools. 

Catlett recalled watching Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech from her living room, navigating the obstacles of attending an all-white school and participating in sit-ins at the Goolrick Pharmacy and the Twenty Four Hundred Diner in Fredericksburg.

“Just as we’re currently going through a racial reform, #BlackLivesMatter, Dr. Catlett explained that she grew up during the Civil Rights Movement,” said Providence. “It was nice to know that someone who went through very similar circumstances and experiences that I am currently going through was able to excel in the career plan I am following. I plan to take Dr. Catlett’s advice and follow in her footsteps.”

In her address, Catlett said that one of her most meaningful beyond-the-classroom experiences took place 30 years ago when she and her colleagues established and launched the University of Mary Washington’s James Farmer Program in 1987. She found it incredibly moving to be in his presence and learn about sacrifice and courage directly from a Civil Rights leader. The James Farmer Program still exists today “to assist students, beginning in the seventh grade, to prepare, to enroll in and attend any college of their choice upon graduation from high school,” according to the UMW website.

Catlett also spoke about enduring racism against Black Americans.

“Today, we are still seeing some of the same images that were disheartening and insensitive 60 years ago,” said Catlett. “Still, racial profiling, subtle discriminatory hiring and wage practices endure. … I can’t help but wonder, as I continue the healing process, the thought that it took so long to appoint an African American superintendent. From all the highly qualified, extremely intelligent, well-deserving Black educators. There are too many to name. Why has it taken so long?” 

Catlett’s story was eye-opening to student attendees.

“Hearing Dr. Catlett’s life story also made me realize that the blatant, encoded racism that she experienced was not that long ago,” said junior political science major Maya Jenkins. “While I know that systematic racism still permeates today, the people who were participating and enforcing the socially accepted definition of racism are not far removed from today.”

Catlett said that a part of her healing process from the racist and traumatic events she had endured took form in positive self-expression and genuine pride in what it means to be a Black American. She closed her address by sharing that her healing process is ongoing, but she finds comfort in returning to her roots and seeking out experiences that lead her to appreciate her history, which is rich and too often untold.

Following the conclusion of Catlett’s speech, she opened up the floor for attendees’ questions and comments. Many of the students in attendance said they were inspired by Catlett’s journey to success as a Black woman in the education system. 

“I found that the Q&A at the end was incredibly beneficial,” said Jenkins. “Facing the intersection of being Black and a woman puts us at a disadvantage, making it harder to find role models who have and are dealing with the struggles that we deal with.”

The hybrid format of the event allowed attendees to listen and participate both in person and virtually through Zoom.  

“We were pleased to have students attending this keynote program in person and via Zoom,” said Sanford. “Regardless of modality of attendance, everyone was inspired by Dr. Catlett’s powerful message.”

Some attendees were glad to be able to witness Catlett’s address in person since the keynote event was held virtually last year.

“In my opinion, any event is better in person, if possible. Especially one with a speaker of great magnitude, like Dr. Catlett,” said Black Student Association President and senior English major Jordan Providence. “I feel as if it gives a more personal perspective. But, I also completely understand wanting to participate from a distance because COVID is still a very serious and touchy subject.”

Sanford also shared the goal of the Cultural Awareness Series and Black History Month.

“The goal of our Cultural Awareness Series is to promote greater understanding and appreciation of diversity in race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age and culture,” said Sanford. “Black History Month celebrates the range of experiences, struggles for equality, equity, representation, and highlights the ground-breaking achievements and contributions of African-Americans, individually and collectively, throughout history.”

Alongside the lessons of Black history, Catlett finds it critical to honor the resilience, creativity and vitality of Black people in the face of inequity and violence, past and present. Catlett hopes to educate and inspire Black Americans, young and old, with her personal stories.

“There is so much rich history and important people in Black Fredericksburg,” said Jenkins, “There is a cannon of Black people in Fredericksburg who made the change that I have benefited from.”