The Grand Marshals of the 31st Annual Fourth of July Parade
Thursday, July 6, 2017
The Fourth of July Committee offers this additional information on the Grand Marshals.
Eric and Michelle Benjamin met in law school at North Carolina Central University and, after marrying, moved to Atlanta where they worked for Legal Services. It wasn’t long, however, before Eric started “feeling the call back to Sewanee.”
“Michelle and I were ready to start a family and thought Sewanee would be an ideal place for raising children,” he said.
In a piece for the Sewanee Alumni magazine, Joseph Riley Land (class of 1998) writes, “Benjamin’s outreach to the student body has played a major role in the dramatically increased enrollment and retention of students of color since he became the University’s first and only director of minority affairs.” Marichal Gentry, current dean of students at the College, was recruited by Benjamin in 1982: “When we arrived on campus, Eric (or Mr. B) was our contact, our mentor, and his office was the only one many of us went to when we needed a word of encouragement—not because there weren’t other folks around to whom we could go, but because he, then, was one of the very few people who looked like us, and he had what we all aspired to have as people of color—a Sewanee degree. He was our model, our in-the-flesh success story.”
Eric was also one of the founding directors, with Doug Seiters, of the Sewanee Summer Scholars Program (SSSP), which began in the early 90s. A total of 30 rising high school sophomores from Chattanooga city schools, as well as Franklin County schools were invited to campus for a four-week intensive program to enhance math, science, English and personal development skills. They returned each summer as rising juniors and seniors (with a new cohort beginning each year). A nearly perfect 98-99 percent of these students went on to attend college. Some of the SSSP students attended Sewanee, and still today, most all of them stay in touch with Mr. B. This program morphed into what is now the BRIDGE program focusing on the biomedical sciences.
Gentry also tells how Eric has been very involved in the Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace. For years, he has collaborated with CCJP to organize the yearly Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration, which, over the years, has outgrown its space in the Bishop’s Common. For the past few years, the annual MLK Program has taken place at Craven’s Hall, where hundreds of members of the Sewanee and surrounding community attend.
Land writes that “at first, the Benjamins had no plans to stay in Sewanee permanently. . . . As he recruited potential students, however, Benjamin promised them he would stay until they graduated, in hopes of keeping them at Sewanee. Not only did his promise accomplish his student-retention goals, but it also kept the Benjamins firmly in place.” During his tenure, the college community has grown from having two students of color to having more than 200 students of color and 28 faculty members from diverse backgrounds. Eric Hartman, vice president of the University, notes that these achievements of outreach and retention stand firmly “on the broad and strong shoulders of Eric Benjamin’s years of dedication to Sewanee, her students and this community.”
On July 4, people lined the street to celebrate the Benjamin family, one of Sewanee’s finest.