Oldest DSU alumna serves as inspiration

 

Courtney Stevenson of Dover, who recently turned 102, graduated from the State College for Colored Students, the precursor of Delaware State University, in 1944. She is also a 70-year member of Whatcoat United Methodist Church. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Courtney Stevenson of Dover, who recently turned 102, graduated from the State College for Colored Students, the precursor of Delaware State University, in 1944. She is also a 70-year member of Whatcoat United Methodist Church. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — More than 150 people attended the June 12 birthday party for Courtney Stevenson, a testament to the impact she has had on numerous lives during her 102 years.

With those 102 years comes the distinction of being not only the oldest living graduate of Delaware State University but also the oldest living member of her church, Whatcoat United Methodist Church of Dover.

Nephew Seaton J. White III meets with his aunt Courtney Stevenson in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Nephew Seaton J. White III meets with his aunt Courtney Stevenson in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

She is a 70-year member of Whatcoat, which hosted the birthday party.

“I feel honored,” Mrs. Stevenson, said recently. “And my honor comes from God.” Mrs. Stevenson is a resident of Capital Health Care Center in Dover.

A 1944 graduate, Mrs. Stevenson received her Bachelor of Science degree in home economics from what was then known as the State College for Colored Students, the precursor of Delaware State University.

Career fields for African-Americans at that time were limited, she said.

While attending college, she lived with Beatrice and Dr. Charles Henry, the brother of William Henry whose name graces William Henry Middle School in Dover.

Mrs. Stevenson almost didn’t attend State College for Colored Students. She first sought higher education at Morgan State College in Baltimore, now known as Morgan State University, but left for financial reasons.

The transfer to Dover, however, led to her future husband, William Watson Stevenson. They married on Thanksgiving Day in 1944, the same year she graduated. Their marriage lasted 57 years until Mr. Stevenson’s death in 2001.

Despite the racial adversity black people faced during this time, Mrs. Stevenson and her siblings led successful lives, according to her nephew.

“Her oldest sister, Janey Harrington, was the first African-American women to be ordained in the United Methodist Church in Baltimore,” said Seaton White III, Mrs. Stevenson’s nephew and caretaker.

Her second oldest sister, Agatha Robinson, became a nurse and her younger brother, Seaton White Jr., opened up his own restaurant.

For her part, Mrs. Stevenson taught home economics in different Delaware public schools as well as Delaware State College, the subsequent name for the State College for Colored Students in 1947.

“That family was raised on religious principle from their mother and father,” Mr. White said. “For that generation to become professionals was an amazing accomplishment.”

It was his aunt and her husband who convinced Mr. White to attend DSU.

“I was already registered to attend the University of Maryland,” he said. “They came to my graduation with a DSU application.”

Mr. White moved in with the Stevensons in Dover while he attended DSU, before moving on campus.

“They just really recognized the need for students to attend an HBCU,” he said, referring to Delaware State’s designation as a historically black college or university.

Friends recognized the bond between the Stevensons.

Sandra Arnell, a sorority sister of Mrs. Stevenson, said the two were very compatible.

Ms. Arnell and Mrs. Stevenson were the vice president and president of their Alpha Kappa Alpha graduate chapter back in the early 1990s.

“Courtney is very loving, on-point and well organized,” Ms. Arnell said. “She loved to help with the young ladies.”

She and Mrs. Stevenson often assisted the undergraduate chapter at DSU, Delta Lambda.

Mrs. Stevenson left an impact on young men, too.

Hugh Waters said Mrs. Stevenson has been assisting him since he was in the first grade.

“She was my teacher many years ago,” he said. “I knew her from church. I was singing in the junior choir at that time.”

Mr. Waters was one of the few males who took her home economics class at the Louis Redding School in Middletown. At the time, the school went from first to 12th grade, and was only for black students.

“She’s an excellent teacher,” he said. “She knew how to get along with adolescents.”

Mr. Waters said he admires how aware and receptive Mrs. Stevenson is today.

“You would never know her age if you talked to her,” he said. “It’s an honor to be in her presence. I’m honored to have had her as a teacher.”

Another admirer, Cheritta Matthews, described Mrs. Stevenson as a kind and gentle person.

“One thing I learned from her is her diplomacy,” she said. “She always knew when to speak and when to be quiet.”

She also praised Mrs. Stevenson’s style and wardrobe coordination, always matching her shoes with her purses.

Mrs. Stevenson has been a part of Ms. Matthews’ life for as long as she can remember since the older woman was friends with her mother. They also attended Whatcoat United Methodist Church of Dover with one another while Mr. Stevenson was once her homeroom teacher.

“She was sort of like another mother,” Ms. Matthews said.

She remembers Mrs. Stevenson staying up all night on Christmas Eve wrapping presents that Mr. Stevenson would deliver Christmas morning.

Mrs. Stevenson’s nephew gives thanks for his aunt to a higher power.

“It is really a source of great pride and great joy that she continued all these years, with the grace of God,” Mr. White said.

Family members are long-lived, he said.

“We can look at her and see that if you live a good life, God will reward you,” he said.

“If I live a good life then maybe God will bless me with those genes, too.”

Editor’s Note: Kristen Griffith is a Dover-area freelance writer.

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