Bonnyeclaire Smith Stewart ’69

Portrait of Bonnyeclaire Smith Stewart

Bonnyeclaire Smith Stewart ’69 is the founder of 4 Million Voices, a non-profit organization that increases the collective African-American history through researching, documenting, and publishing accounts of individual lives of African-Americans. She lives in the Atlanta area but will be making the journey back to campus in June as a Reunion 2019 volunteer.

Why did you choose Sarah Lawrence? 

My introduction to Sarah Lawrence College was by alumna, Betty Powell Jones ’59 in her Wilton, Connecticut living room, in the fall of 1963. Betty, an art major at Sarah Lawrence College, who began singing opera after age 40, offered to coach me, similar to her own experience. Georgianna Gregersen told Betty she had a beautiful voice, but needed technical skills, and offered to give her lessons. Though less formal than Georgianna’s lessons, I relied on Betty to coach me before singing appearances. However, first and foremost, Betty and husband Doug (and their two children) were part of my sponsoring committee. I came to a neighboring town, Norwalk, in August, 1963 as a participant in the NYC American Friends Service Committee’s “Southern Negro Student Project.”  My host family, Elbert and Carol Thompson (and their four children) allowed me to be a guest in their home for two years to complete high school, escaping the precarious educational system in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. The Thompsons, as a part of the hosting requirement, invited several local families to support this effort. Betty spoke candidly about college for a young “Negro” woman and the importance of being in an environment that allowed for optimum individual growth. I listened intently to her experiences, ordered a brochure, read it, then sought advice from my mother, and other Connecticut sponsors.

I compared Sarah Lawrence College with other colleges by surveying brochures, taking campus tours, and chatting with alumni. Sarah Lawrence stood out because of the unique learning atmosphere: small classes, don-donee relationship, emphasis on independent and in-depth study, and the proximity to NYC for expanded experiences. I was impressed that no “cookie cutter” or “pattern” curriculum was in place to force a prescribed plan. I had boundaries placed on me in Jim Crow South and I needed to experience life in a less restrictive environment. I wanted to be able to max myself out in my studies, with my singing, and life—to not have limits on the depth and breadth of finding answers. Sarah Lawrence was at the top of my list. I was blessed to be able to attend my first choice.

Did you have a favorite class?

Hmmm…as professors and classes whizzed through memory just now, the choice of a single favorite class became cumbersome. One reason is because each class, independent study, and professor was unique. None of my classes were short on work, intensity, or reward. Each class is a part of me and constitutes the whole SLC impact. The list is narrowed to four-way-tie:  Harold Aks, Joseph Campbell, Adda Bozeman, and Gerda Lerner. However, I break the tie based on “professorship.”

Harold Aks, my four-year don, choir director, European chorus conductor, and music teacher probably had the most influence in my life at Sarah Lawrence. My relationship with Harold Aks was a four-year class, reaching far beyond the confines of the course in music. He epitomized a mentor…lifting music off of the black ink on paper; expanding the score and the lyrics beyond sound and vibrations to life experiences. Music became a portal to the human experience. I also realized, under his mentoring, that singing was not merely something I did; it was a part of who I was. Music and its appendages, however expressed, were a part of my soul, via any object that produced a sound. This included dance and movement, animals, and of course traditional instruments (including voice).

What was your favorite spot on campus?

Ahhh. Here we go again…making a single choice by choosing a “favorite spot on campus.” My first response was “for what?” My favorite spot on campus for music was a specific practice room at Marshal Field. My favorite spot before dinner at Bates was the pool table downstairs. My favorite spot for “networking” (LOL) were the wooden phone booths in the dorm halls. My favorite spot to read in warm weather was leaning against the stone wall under a tree in the courtyard near MacCracken. My favorite spot to read in the winter was close to the radiator in my room. My favorite evening place to hang out was the café where Kathy Jackson ’69, Pamela White ’69, Bernice Green ’69, Pamela Coveney ’69, and I created the “Soul Burger:” Beef patty avec mayo, mustard, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, onion, and cheese. (Sound familiar?). My favorite place to “just be” was under the wisteria-laced arbor, in front of Westlands. My favorite chair was taking a weekly seat in each professor’s office to discuss independent study. What is greater than feeling/knowing that you, what you have to say, what you want to learn, and what guidance provided in those moments is all about you—all for you—when you sit in that chair with mutually undivided attention between master and student?

How did your time at Sarah Lawrence influence your career?

Sarah Lawrence built on the foundation of my family and community, and the inner need for me to be the unique person that I was created to be. To ask questions, dig deep … until satisfied, unearth solutions, narrow fields of interest and focus on minute details, sort and filter data. I gained and polished skills that I carried, not just in career, but in every aspect of life. And I seemed to have impacted my children and grandchildren in that regard. (Proudly, I might add.) Sarah Lawrence helped give me the freedom to be me, during a time when negative messages were abundant for women, people with "one drop" of African descent in America, Southern folk, and divergent thinkers. I developed the mindset to be a participant, to lift my voice and be heard, to be an agent of change whereever I might be.

I was very interested in the human experience, collectively and individually, with a keen interest in how humans develop individually. I wanted to understand the disparity between the children in the SLC nursery school and the Head Start children at St. Mary’s in Harlem. I was baffled by the phenomenon of “hatred” and wondered about the “nature vs nurture” formula to produce that mindset and behavior. I spent my first career in early care and development, as a teacher, teacher trainer, parent coach, and state advocate for quality care and corporate sponsored care.

I became “burnt out” and ventured into the corporate field in sales and administration as a second career, where I quickly saw the correlation between human development and sales. A gradual shift in interest to the cultural development of African Americans blossomed nearing retirement. This focus inspired me to obtain a Masters in American History in two years (2013-2015) in preparation for establishing a non-profit organization, 4 Million Voices. The name represents the four million-plus enslaved African Americans enumerated in 1860 on the U.S. decennial census who were silenced. The organization seeks to give them a voice by telling their stories and the stories of their descendants. Currently, my MBA studies focus on the business of operating a non-profit, as I continue research on historical content topics for the organization.

What are you most looking forward to at Reunion 2019?​

I am looking forward to giving and receiving; being warmed by visiting the campus and inhaling memories activated by senses stored in the cortex; seeing changes in the campus; fellowship with classmates; being refreshed and invigorated by attending meaningful seminars that offer age-relevant topics of personal health and wellbeing, current history, and trends in the arts (especially music); the rigor of extended seminar discussions and the closeness of personal chats into the wee hours and small groups…probably not on dorm steps as in days of yore (smile) and maybe not as late...; and welcoming any healing that is ripe for the moment; and mostly staying open to carpe diem! I love the unexpected and the suddenlies in life!