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The work and impact of the late James E. Newton (pictured at left)
was the focus of a symposium Saturday, Feb. 18, as the University of
Delaware presented the honorary doctor of humane letters degree to the
family of the beloved artist, professor and activist. The honorary
degree is the University’s highest academic award, reserved for those
who reflect the University’s mission and serve as exemplars for UD
students, the UD community and the world. From left to right in this
photo are University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis, Dr. Newton’s
widow, LaWanda, daughters KaWansi Newton-Freeman and Walidah Justice,
and Debra Hess Norris, a member of UD’s Board of Trustees, the Unidel
Henry Francis du Pont Chair in Fine Arts, and director of the
Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation.
Two accomplished artists, educators and community leaders who
invested their considerable intellectual and creative gifts in improving
life for many received the University of Delaware’s highest honors
during separate events on Saturday, Feb. 18.
The late James E. Newton, longtime professor, mentor, author and
award-winning artist, received an honorary doctor of humane letters
degree during a symposium on art and activism held in his honor.
Dr. Newton, an early director of UD’s Black American Studies program,
who gave it traction to grow into what is now the Department of
Africana Studies, was to have received the honorary degree, UD’s highest
academic honor, at Commencement last May, but died a few days before
the ceremony. The honorary degree is reserved for those who reflect the
University’s mission and serve as exemplars for UD students, the UD
community and the world.
“He has been an artist, an author, creator, intellectual, professor,
scholar, community builder, a mentor – he has done amazing things,” UD
President Dennis Assanis said in remarks before the presentation. “I
wish that all of us could leave that legacy and indelible mark behind to
all the generations to come.”
Raye Jones Avery, educator, performing artist, mentor, arts advocate
in Wilmington and UD alumna, received UD’s Medal of Distinction in a
ceremony before the final performance of “Suite Blackness: Black Dance
in Cinema” at the Roselle Center for the Arts. Avery, an accomplished
jazz vocalist, sang several times during that performance.
The Medal of Distinction is bestowed by UD’s Board of Trustees,
recognizing individuals who have made humanitarian, cultural,
intellectual or scientific contributions to society or have achieved
noteworthy professional success or given significant service to the
University, community, state or region.
“In so many ways, Raye has done all of them,” said Debra Hess Norris,
who is the Unidel Henry Francis du Pont Chair in Fine Arts, a member of
UD’s Board of Trustees and chair of its Committee on Honorary Degrees
and Awards, and director of the Winterthur/University of Delaware
Program in Art Conservation. “She has had a multi-faceted career as a
curator, as an entrepreneur, as an educator, as an activist, as a mentor
and as a recording artist.”
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Dr. Newton was a first-generation college student and earned his
bachelor of arts degree at North Carolina Central University. He was the
first Black student to earn a master of fine arts degree at the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and he later earned a
doctorate at Illinois State University.
Dr. Newton taught at West Chester University, Illinois State and
Western Illinois University before joining UD’s faculty in 1972 as an
assistant professor of education.
In short order, he was promoted to associate professor and became an
early director of UD’s Black American Studies program, now the
Department of Africana Studies. During his 33-year career at UD, he
chaired the Commission to Promote Racial and Cultural Diversity and was
recognized with the Excellence in Teaching Award, the Black Student
Union Faculty Award, an award for teaching excellence from the Mortar
Board honor society and the Louis L. Redding Diversity Award.
It’s an impressive trajectory for someone who was once arrested for
“impersonating a student,” as he recounted to historian Roger Horowitz
during a 2021 interview. The interview is now part of the "Oral History Interviews: African Americans and the University of Delaware" collection in UD's Library.
The arrest occurred when he was working on his master’s degree at the
University of North Carolina. Dr. Newton said he was on Main Street
there, carrying some paintings as he returned home from his work-study
program, when police stopped him and asked what he was doing. They
didn’t believe that he was going home from the college campus, because
“no Negroes go there.”
Dr. Newton went on to help many Black students navigate all manner of
situations and challenges at UD and beyond. He was also an inspiration
to other faculty and provided sage counsel on many boards and
commissions, as many attested during the Feb. 18 symposium named for
“I was totally inspired by his compassion, by his knowledge, by his
commitment to all — to every student — by his intellect, his positivity
and his kindness and his passion, perhaps most by his creative genius,”
said Debbie Hess Norris, chair of the Department of Art Conservation and
chair of the Board of Trustees’ Committee on Honorary Degrees and
Awards. “His work is gorgeous, absolutely beautiful in its color. He
used every media known, crayons and ink and acrylic paints on all
different supports, to create the most beautiful work that we will
ensure is preserved for our enjoyment, for our education, for our
In addition to his 33 years of service on UD’s faculty, Dr. Newton
served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ Delaware State Advisory
Committee, the National Board of the Association for the Study of
Afro-American Life and History and many other organizations, including
the Walnut Street YMCA, the Delaware State Arts Council, the Delaware
Art Museum, Tatnall School, YMCA of Delaware and Public Allies.
He wrote The Principles of Diversity: Handbook for a
Diversity-Friendly America and A Curriculum Evaluation on Student
Knowledge of Afro-American Life and History and was co-editor of The Other Slaves: Mechanics, Artisans and Craftsmen.
He wrote articles on multicultural education, African American art and
diversity and more than 30 articles on Black Delawareans. He won top
prizes in sculpture and graphics at the National African American Art
Exhibition in Atlanta.
Dr. Newton retired from UD’s faculty in 2005, leaving a stellar
legacy that was recognized by UD’s Excellence in Teaching Award, the
Black Student Union Faculty Award, the Mortar Board Teaching Award and
the Louis L. Redding Diversity Award.
His service and impact also were recognized externally, including the
Christi Award from the Christina Cultural Arts Center, the Wilmington New Journal’s
Hometown Heroes Award, the Joseph Del Tufo Award from the Delaware
Humanities Forum and the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League’s James H.
Gilliam Sr. Chairman’s Award.
University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis (left) joined the
University’s Medal of Distinction honoree Raye Jones Avery (center) and
Debra Hess Norris for the award presentation. Norris is a member of UD’s
Board of Trustees, the Unidel Henry Francis du Pont Chair in Fine Arts
and director of the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art
Conservation. The award was presented just before the final performance
of “Suite Blackness” on Feb. 18 at the Roselle Center for the Arts.
Avery is an alumna of the University of Delaware, where she earned an
interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree in English and sociology. She
earned her master’s degree in health services administration from West
She is among those who counted Dr. Newton as a “mentor for life,” too.
In a 1993 interview with UD’s Messenger alumni magazine, Avery said she had gone to predominantly white schools, unlike many of her Black classmates at UD.
“It was a challenge to Black students not to feel lost and isolated,”
she said. “People who were coming out of the Wilmington Public School
System had never been in a mixed system before, but because I had always
gone to predominantly white schools, I knew what to expect and knew I
During her time at UD, the House of Amojo — now the Center for Black Culture — was developed.
After graduation, she worked for Jea P. Street, who is also a UD
alum. Street was executive director of the Parent Educational Resource
Center, a powerful advocate for students as New Castle County schools
were desegregated, and has been a member of New Castle County Council
for almost 20 years. Avery later worked for Planned Parenthood and the
United Way of Delaware.
In her 28 years of service as executive director of the Christina
Cultural Arts Center, she offered powerful and long-lasting support for
African American arts and cultural heritage throughout the region.
“The arts are one of the greatest gifts from the creator to the
universe,” Avery told CityFest Wilmington in a 2019 interview. “It has a
healing power, so I can’t imagine life without creativity and
She was among those who advocated for the establishment of
Wilmington’s Creative District and has been a visionary leader in human
services and community development.
After receiving the Medal of Distinction, she said she considers her
most enduring legacy to be Kuumba Academy Charter School in Wilmington.
She was the founding board president of the school, which was founded in
2001 in partnership with the Christina Cultural Arts Center and serves
students from kindergarten through eighth grade.
She is also former president of the Delaware chapter of the National
Coalition of 100 Black Women and has served on the boards of the
Wilmington Renaissance Development Corporation, the Vision Coalition and
the Rodel Foundation.
Article by Beth Miller, photos by Kathy F. Atkinson
Published February 28, 2023