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Renaissance Woman: Wichitans Reflect On The Life Of Maya Angelou

Courtesy photo

A private funeral service was held Saturday, June 7, 2014, in North Carolina for famed poet, author and activist Maya Angelou. She died at her Winston-Salem home on May 28 at age 86. KMUW's Carla Eckels remembers Angelous's time as a distinguished professor at Wichita State University.

Hear excerpts of Angelou's speech during the 1973 WSU Forum Board Lecture Series and more by clicking the audio story above.

In the early 70s, Ms. Angelou spent a month as a distinguished professor at WSU, and the city of Wichita also named the northeast branch library in her honor in the mid 90s.

Maya Angelou was invited to Wichita to speak on November 2, 1973, as part of Wichita State University Forum Board Lecture Series.

"I'm very proud to be on this campus for the obvious reasons that I'm about the business of sharing my existence, very serious about it," Angelou said. "I’m particularly glad to be at this campus because you did the play, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings."

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was her best selling 1969 autobiography that later went on to become a play. It was the first in a seven-volume series, covering topics such as identity, rape, racism and literacy.

Credit Carla Eckels
Former WSU Advisor and Ethnic Studies Professor Jean Elliott visited Maya Angelou at her home in North Carolina.

Jean Elliott is a retired WSU Advisor and Ethnic Studies professor. She says she discovered Angelou through I Know Why The Cage Bird Sings.

"To do this day, I’ve got all her books, but that would still be my favorite," Elliott said. "I used it in a lot of my classes as a teaching tool."

Elliott also says the poet had charm and so many gifts.

“She could sing, She could dance. She could write literature. She could write poetry. She could give speeches," Elliott said. "Her talents were so multi-faceted that you could always find something that attracted you to her. She wasn’t one-dimensional at all.”

Dr. George Rogers is the former Chair of the Department of Minorities Studies at Wichita State. He met and became friends with Angelou in the late 60s, calling each other sister and brother.

“She’s a lady that when she spoke to you in any kind of conversation or way, you kind of lean your head towards her and make sure you didn’t miss a word," Rogers said. "The significance of the tone and of her voice...it was so unique that if you ever spoke with her you’d always know who it was if she spoke to you again."

Credit Carla Eckels
Dr. George Rogers remembers his friend Maya Angelou. He says he's collected all of her books.

After her speaking engagement on campus, Rogers asked Angelo to be a distinguished professor. She spent a month at WSU in March of 1974.

"She stayed here at the house and taught the classes at Wichita State and had a number of presentations that she made in various places in the city," he said. "She really was quite fond of Wichita."

Credit Courtesy photo
Famed Poet Maya Angelou and long time friend Dr. George Rogers, Former Chair of WSU Minority Studies.

Dr. Rogers and Dr. Angelou remained friends over the years right up until her death. Roger’s wife and three daughters were also uniquely influenced by Angelou.

In the early 80’s, Angelou got a permanent professorship at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.

Jean Elliott won the chance to be a guest at Maya Angelou’s home after her husband bid at a WSU Alumni auction.

Elliott says Angelou was inundated by fans.

"I noticed if we would go some place for lunch, we could eat our lunch she never could get a bite because there was constantly people hanging over her asking questions, so we tried not to pester her with too many questions."

Elliott says Angelou’s home was very spacious with decks leading out to the gardens with statues of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass.  

On December 20,1996, the Maya Angelou Library was dedicated in Wichita. During his time as a city council member, it was something Dr. Roger’s passionately sought.

Credit Carla Eckels
The Maya Angelou Library

“She spoke at the library...at the dedication," said Rogers. "Then she spoke at Wichita State and people were (lined up) from the student union...around the block... all out on 17th street and every place else. They closed it three times and Maya had them reopen the lines for anybody that had been standing out there waiting to have their book signed so she could sign them and that’s the kind of person she was."

A Maya Angelou tribute event is scheduled for Friday, June 27, at the Angelou Northeast Branch Library, 3051 East 21st St N. in Wichita, from 7-8:30 pm.

Carla Eckels is Director of Cultural Diversity for News and Engagement at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.