Dr. Katherine Elinor Knight Wilcox
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27 February 1931 I 4 April 2019
“We must develop a compelling vision of later life, one that does not assume a trajectory of decline after fifty but recognizes this as a time of potential change, growth, and new learning, a time when our ‘courage gives us hope.’”
Sara Lawrence Lightfoot
“We are all works in progress” is an insight our mother Dr. Katherine Elinor Knight Wilcox was known to offer as reminder that each of us is moving toward something greater. It was welcome comfort when realizing our best effort had fallen short, and enlightenment when experiencing the shortcomings of others. It was a nudge to be ever reflective from someone deeply interested in people and open to new ideas. Our mother lived this wisdom in creating a self-defined life hewn from curiosity, faith, and a sense of rightness. Growing up she had few examples of such but was nonetheless always progressing.
At age 83, after a lifetime exploring and collecting art, largely of the African Diaspora, our mother began to take art classes at the 92 Street Y in New York City. From pastels to watercolors to acrylics, she found her stride in oil painting and was developing her artistic voice. She described her creative process as allowing colors and texture to organically emerge as she put brush to canvas. Her confidence growing, she had begun to frame and hang pieces in her home and to make gifts of them. Her dream to have a joint exhibit with her youngest daughter Susan Elise Wilcox (a photographer and designer) was not to be, but her palpable joy for art accented the essence of her parenting.
Where some parents prefer their children make safe career and lifestyle choices, our mother encouraged us— while emphasizing education, leadership, service, and justice—to find our individual path. These core ethics coalesced throughout her own life, and beautifully so when her son David Preston Wilcox became the father of a child with special needs.
Her grandson, Hamza AbdurRahman, called her Koko as did all of the young people in her life. Now 8 years old, Hamza was born with Down Syndrome and abundant personality. His outgoing, playful manner has earned him the moniker the mayor at his pre- and elementary schools, yet Koko had to draw on 27 years of teaching in the Barnard College Education Program to help ensure Hamza’s educational rights were upheld. Hamza attends an inclusion school and participates in inclusive out-ofschool activities where his presence is helping to bring dignity to the breadth of human capacity.
Tall, poised, elegant, stylish, discerning, our mother personified dignity and grace. She was called Lady K by sister-friends of her oldest daughter, Gwynne A. Wilcox. On the many trips our mother took with Gwynne to labor law conferences, Lady K charmed Gwynne’s colleagues with her elán. These convenings were certainly a chance to learn more about her daughter’s work, but also aligned with her regard for workers who are essentially relied upon yet frequently unnoticed. We recall the large presence of support staff at her Barnard College retirement party and have seen this occur again and again. Our
mother has continually been in right relationship with people. She was a confidante to her village who sought her advice, and had close relationships with people of all ages.
Our mother's work at Barnard College was foreshadowed by personal and professional experiences as founding president of the P.S. 80 (Queens) parent teacher association in 1964 and a year teaching second grade at P.S. 021 Crispus Attucks (Brooklyn). In 1971, she collaborated with her long time Barnard colleague, Sue Sacks, to create the elementary teacher education program. Together they also worked on the formation of the Consortium for Excellence in Teacher Education (now based at Princeton University), on a groundbreaking mentoring program that connected retired and current NYC public school teachers, and on the Institute for Urban Education, an immersive science and math summer program for rising public school 8th graders. Early on at Barnard our mother was interviewed for a sociohistorical project on the contributions of Black women there (Negotiating Integration: Black Women at Barnard, 1968–1974 by Elvita Dominique, Barnard Center for Research on Women), and would continually negotiate a terrain of racial and gender bias. She brought these and other experiences into her practice as an Assistant Dean (where she held varied appointments) and became a trusted mentor to many students, particularly Black and Latina students and alumnae. After her retirement from Barnard she was delighted to return to her alma mater, The City College of New York (CUNY), to support and mentor diverse students as an administrator in its Education Department.
Our mother was actively involved in non-profit organizations and schools whether as a board chair, member or volunteer, including Manhattan Country School, Operation Crossroads Africa, National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa (Beta Epsilon Chapter), National Council of Negro Women, the Coalition of 100 Black Women, International Mentoring Association, International Youth Leadership Institute, and The Brotherhood/Sister Sol. From 1980-2000, our mother served on the Board of Deacons at The Riverside Church (TRC), and was the first chair of this body when the Church Council was formed in 1990. She was a leader in the Black Christian Caucus (founded to push TRC to fulfill its moral duty as a national leader by working for racial justice in and outside of the church) and was involved in several other TRC programs. She campaigned for Dick Gregory in 1968 and braved the cold to see Barack Obama inaugurated in 2008. In the late 1990s, she facilitated a series of exchanges in South Africa between small Black owned businesses in the US and South Africa. During the early phase of rental to co-op conversions in the late 1970s, she worked with tenants in her building to broker a non-eviction plan that allowed rent controlled and rent stabilized tenants to retain their apartments. She also advocated for her mother to receive 24-hour home healthcare by arguing the case in an administrative hearing, and winning it. Our mother was not a bystander.
Our mother, the daughter of P. Elise Poole of Richmond, VA and Estey Knight of Barbados, was born in Richmond and raised in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Her mother later married Fitzhue Lee and the marriage produced her brothers (Donald and Vernon Lee) who predeceased her. She travelled extensively to Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, Canada, and Europe. She graduated from City College and earned master’s and doctoral degrees in adult and higher education from Teachers College, Columbia University, the latter a fulfillment of a longtime personal goal.
Ever progressing, our mother’s village shared the magical belief that she would defy the odds and be with us forever, such was her verve and strength.
Along with her three children, Gwynne, David and Susan; Farah (David's wife); her grandchildren (Aja, Ammar, Zayd and Hamza); Karlos Richardson (Aja's husband); her great grandchildren (Karson, Karter and Kaziah); Lynn Sherard Wilcox (Aja's mother); and her godchildren Joanne Wyley and Neil Bayley,
Mom, Katherine, Koko, Lady K is profoundly loved and missed by the Lee, Wilcox, Yangson, Sherard, Richardson, Fleary, Gilmore, and Akinsulure-Smith families and by her many friends and colleagues.
Gwynne, David & Susan April 2019 NYC
In lieu of flowers, we invite you to make a donation in the name of Dr. Katherine Knight Wilcox to the National Down Syndrome Society at https://www.classy.org/give/60261/#!/donation/checkout OR by mail to:
National Down Syndrome Society 8 East 41 Street - 8th floor New York, NY 10017
(Please make your check payable to NDSS and indicate your donation is in memory of Dr. Katherine Knight Wilcox)