Harriet Barfield Black, the first Fort Valley State College graduate, died Tuesday, April 14, 2020, following a life highlighted by her steadfast support for Fort Valley State University. The Atlanta resident was 101.
Prior to her death, Black became widely known around campus for having made a gift to FVSU every year since 1941, the year she made history by becoming the first student to walk across the stage to receive her bachelor’s degree from FVSC.
Before becoming FVSC’s first graduate, Black had earned her teaching certification in 1939 from then Fort Valley Normal and Industrial School only to be called back by the registrar two years later when the State of Georgia designated FVNIS as a college.
After graduating, Black would go on to become a second-grade teacher in Atlanta Public Schools, a role she treasured. Black would jokingly tell others she stayed in the post for decades because she never got “promoted” to a higher-grade level. During those years, she helped nurture thousands of students and developed a reputation for being a kind-hearted educator.
Family members recalled a story the perfectly illustrated Black’s impact on her students. In her early days of teaching, students didn’t have access to federally funded lunches and had to bring their lunch from home. One student could only bring one biscuit for lunch, and, at lunchtime, Black noticed him embarrassedly holding his lunch bag under his desk and eating his biscuit sheepishly so as not to be seen by the other students. Black said nothing to the student, but for one week, she brought a single biscuit for her lunch. She elaborately spread a place setting for herself on her desk, placed her biscuit proudly in full display, and made a big show out of eating it and enjoying it. That show mitigated the student’s embarrassment and helped him feel more confidently part of the class. That was important to Black, and why her former students have constantly stopped her, thanked her, and updated her on their life’s progress over the years.
Black’s name became so synonymous with consistent alumni giving at Fort Valley State that the FVSU Foundation established a society in her honor. Members of the Harriet Barfield Black Society have made the solemn promise of an annual and ongoing charitable commitment to the University. The first members of the HBBS were installed at the Hunt-Bond-Troup Gala during homecoming 2008.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Ms. Harriet Barfield Black,” said Fort Valley State President Paul Jones. “Ms. Black was a dear friend to FVSU and represented the spirit, dedication and loyalty that has allowed this institution to endure and prosper for 125 years. We are forever grateful for the outstanding example of service and giving that she provided and the opportunities she created for generations of Wildcats through her generosity.”
For her 101st birthday last year, she made the trip back to her alma mater to personally visit the institution that had empowered her life’s journey. Dozens of family members joined her and the City of Fort Valley, Georgia’s Pro-Tempore Mayor Lemario Brown, an FVSU alum, presented her with a key to the city. To honor her commitment and dedication to the University and others, President Jones declared that day as “Harriet Barfield Black” day on FVSU’s campus and throughout Wildcat Nation.
President Jones has ordered the FVSU flags be lowered to half-staff in recognition of Black’s remarkable legacy at this institution and across the nation.
She is survived by her son Dr. Harold Alonza Black (Connie Neal), grandsons Morgan (Garlinda) and Dr. Michael, Sr. (Ashley), granddaughters Dr. Harriet Nembhard (Dr. David) and Erika Rose (Jack), eight great-grandchildren (MJ, Reagan, Haley, Michael Jr., Ava Harriet, Olivia, Naomi and Charlotte) and three great-great-grandchildren (Elijah, Kai and Mikhai).