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High UD honors go to James Newton, Rae Jones Avery

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Honorary degree, medal of distinction awarded for exemplary service

​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.”​

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James E. Newton

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 him.

“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 enrichment.”

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.​

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Raye Jones Avery

​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 Chester University.

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 b​ecause I had always gone to predominantly white schools, I knew what to expect and knew I could survive.”

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 art-making.”

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.​

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​​ Article by Beth Miller, photos by Kathy F. Atkinson 

Published February 28, 2023​

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Honorary degree, medal of distinction awarded for exemplary service
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High UD honors go to James Newton, Rae Jones Avery