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These Emerson Alumnae Were the First To…

March is Women’s History Month, and of course there are lots of Emerson women who’ve made history in many arenas. Here’s just a sample.

By David Ertischek ’01
Research by Michelle Romero, Emerson College Archives.

mary burrill black and white

Mary Burrill (1904) was the first Black student to graduate from Emerson College. Burrill was a playwright who taught and inspired many of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Read more about Mary Burrill.

The Mary Burrill Scholarship was established in 2002 in Mary’s name to promote and support diversity at the College.

Ms. Elma Lewis at desk
Ms. Elma Lewis. Photo/Georgia Litwack

Ms. Elma Lewis ’43 was one of the first women recipients of a MacArthur Fellows Grant in 1981. Among many other accomplishments, Ms. Lewis also received a Presidential Medal for the Arts by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. She graduated from Emerson in 1943, financing her education by acting in local theatre productions, and went on to earn her master’s in education from Boston University. 

Read more about Ms. Lewis.

In 1950, Ms. Lewis opened the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury to promote arts and communication education for Boston’s Black youth. She later founded Playhouse in the Park in Boston’s Franklin Park, offering free summer performances; and the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA), bringing students from the Elma Lewis School to tour in stage productions on a national level.

Carole Simpson taught at Emerson from 2007 to 2019, and was the first African American to anchor a major national newscast, starting for NBC in 1975. In 1992, she became the first woman of color to moderate a presidential debate when she helmed a debate between George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot.

Marciarose Shestack ’51 was the first female news anchor of a prime-time daily news show in a major market, launching the Eyewitness News format on KYW-TV in Philadelphia with co-anchor Tom Snyder in 1965.

Suzan Johnson Cook ’76 was the first female senior pastor in the 200-year history of the American Baptist Churches USA . She was the first female president of the Hampton University Ministers Conference in 2002, which was the largest African American clergy conference in the world at that time. In 2011, she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the first woman and person of African descent to be Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

Iliza Shlesinger ’05 was the first (and only) female and youngest comedian to win NBC’s Last Comic Standing, which aired from 2003-2010 and 2014-2015.

Professor Emerita Edna Ward ’55 was the first woman to sit on the Coast Guard Academy Advisory Committee. Ward practiced as a speech therapist for a few years before joining the faculty, and served as provost and vice president.

Gaynelle Griffin Jones ’69 was the first African American woman to serve on theTexas Court of Appeals after being appointed in 1992. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her the first African American woman to serve as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas.

Suzan-Lori Parks, was Emerson’s 2013 Waldman Chair and the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Topdog/Underdog. Among many accomplishments, she also received the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant in 2001.

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