Published on April 6, 2021 by Morgan Black
The Samford University community mourns the loss of Billie Jean Young, a graduate of Samford’s Cumberland School of Law. Young was an actress, playwright, director, author, poet, educator, orator, activist and community organizer. A true trailblazer, she passed away on March 30, 2021.
Young blazed her trails at an early age. She was a member of the first class to graduate African Americans at Judson College in Marion, Alabama, where she earned her undergraduate degree. Then, she was among the first African Americans to graduate from Samford when she earned her Juris Doctor from Cumberland School of Law in 1979.
Her life’s work was about moving people forward through her art, ideas and activism. She focused her talents on the Civil Rights Movement and challenges for the poor, most specifically in America's rural South. She led major efforts for change in Alabama and Mississippi and was highly involved in socioeconomic growth in Belize.
A renowned artist, her stories transcended a global audience. She performed her one-woman show – “Fannie Lou Hamer: This Little Light” – all over the world.
After seeing a performance of her play in Birmingham in 2016, Cumberland School of Law Dean Corky Strickland said, “Ms. Young convincingly and inspirationally gave a voice to the frustrations, fears, and hopes of Hamer and of generations of African Americans. When Ms. Young sang excerpts of gospel songs of the era which are part of the play, members of the Birmingham audience began quietly singing along. As the play progressed and Ms. Young’s character became more confident and assertive, the audience did so as well as they sang along. It finally struck me that many of the audience members who sang along were black Birmingham women of an age that were children during Birmingham’s civil rights marches. They were probably the very children who engaged in the childrens’ marches. Other venues around the world surely cannot provide the backdrop of Birmingham and the impromptu back-up cast that made this performance special and all the more moving.”
In addition to her own writing and artistical performances, she fully supported community arts through her involvement. She served as the director of The Drama Project in Alabama and founded The Drama Project/Child Abuse Project in Drama (CAPID) for the Belize Rural Women's Association. She also cofounded Alabama's Branch Heights Dance Company. She was the artistic director and co-founder of the Blackbelt Arts & Cultural Center in Selma, Alabama, and served on the Alabama School of Fine Arts and the Alabama Humanities Foundation.
Young was the founding chairperson of the Rural Development Leadership Network, was the president of the Southwest Alabama Association of Rural & Minority Women and was a community organizer for the Southwest Alabama Farmers’ Cooperative Association, among many other roles.
Throughout her career, she shared her experiences and knowledge at various colleges and universities as a faculty, adjunct or visiting faculty member including Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, the University of Southern California, the University at Albany-SUNY in New York, Colby College in Maine, the University of Alabama, Mississippi State University, Selma University, Stann Creek Ecumenical College in Belize, and Judson College.
As a reflection of her life’s work, Young was the recipient of numerous awards and honors including the highly esteemed MacArthur Fellows "Genius" Award for her community development leadership. Among many other local, national and international recognitions, she was inducted into the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative Hall of Fame and the Alabama Black Belt Hall of Fame, was awarded a Women of Distinction Award by the Girl Scouts of North Central Alabama and received the Mississippi Governor's Award for Artistic Achievement. She was honored as an Honorary Citizen by the Belize Rural Women's Association, was listed as a “Legend in Our Time” by Essence Magazine and received the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus' Fannie Lou Hamer on the Road to Freedom Award.
“It is a truly an honor to call her one of our own,” Strickland shared. “Her wisdom, fortitude and cheerfulness will be missed.”
Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. The Wall Street Journal ranks Samford 1st nationally for student engagement and U.S. News & World Report ranks Samford 37th in the nation for best undergraduate teaching and 97th nationally for best value. Samford enrolls 5,758 students from 48 states and 22 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference, and ranks 3rd nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.