Friends And Family Remember Ollie McClean, Africa-Centered Educator, Who Preached "Black And Beautiful"

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Ollie McClean


"I am Black and beautiful," was the message Sister Ollie McClean, who passed away on May 26, at age 74, spread through most of her life.

Sister Ollie, as the thousands of fans and supporters called her, was a "queen not only in intellect and beauty" but also in her commitment to reconnecting African peoples scattered all over the world due to the history of enslavement.

Ollie dedicated her life to educating young people, first by teaching them of their great history, culture and legacy; she considered this education to be a critical foundation from which children could then conquer knowledge in all disciplines.

That's how Sister Ollie McClean, founder of Sankofa Academy, an African-centered school in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood, and a member of several civic and activist organizations, deserved to be remembered, said Rev. Dr. Gary V. Simpson, senior pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ, in his eulogy of McClean this morning.

The Brooklyn church, where McClean had been a member for the past 31 years, was packed with family, students, and friends; African drummers pounded farewell beats outside the church. "She wanted us to know that wherever we were, we were all still very African," Rev. Simpson said, of Sister Ollie.

Sister Ollie McClean was an active member of numerous groups, including Guerrilla Journalism; United Africa Movement (UAM); BSEC; CEMOTAP; Nubian Society; Jazz 966; ABENY, and; the Porter Foundation.

Her accomplishments included being a Grandessa Model --models who wore Afros and celebrated natural African looks in the 1960s. The graduate of the Fashion Institute also became an entrepreneur who operated a Boutique in Harlem while she was also the personal fashion designer for many established singing groups.  This was all way before she founded Sankofa Academy, an Elementary  school, 30 years ago.

By appreciating their self-worth McClean's students --she called them her "children" -- developed confidence and achieved more in other disciplines; in the arts and the sciences.  Many graduates of Sankofa went on to study at various HBCUs, Vassar and Yale.

"There has been a lot packed in this life," Rev. Simpson said, noting that most people would have been satisfied with just one of McClean's several achievements. She was a "renaissance woman."

Many people got to know Ollie McClean from her appearances to discuss the importance of teaching children that their history predates enslavement of African people, on "Like It Is," on WABC Television, with the show's late host and producer Gil Noble.

Sister Ollie's mission in life was to repudiate the misrepresentations and stereotypes of African people. Western supremacy could be found even in the scriptures, Rev. Simpson said, noting the Song of Solomon 1:5 which in part reads "I am black, but comely...." He said this was comparable to hearing contemporary statements such as "you are smart, for a Black person," or "you're so articulate."

Rev. Simpson said Sister Ollie dedicated her life to teaching young people that there was no contradiction between "Black" and "intelligence."

And, while many people had a disconnect from their jobs or professions, Sister Ollie's work exemplified who she was as a person; a dedicated Pan-African. "Who she is and what she did; there was no disconnect," Rev. Simpson said.

Ollie named her school Sankofa and chose the symbol of the bird with it's head turned backwards to remind every child that attended the school --and their parent-- that with individual success comes responsibility; to reach back and uplift others.

Ollie Willins-McClean was born March 26, 1941; her family migrated to the U.S. from Barbados. She was a Black Studies scholar who displayed a deep and unwavering love for her people.

Her accomplishments included: involvement as a member of the Federal Steering Committee representing the African community and working with the General Services Administration in fighting for a proper dedication of the African Burial Ground; co-chairing the Committee of Descendants of the African Burial Ground to preserve its dignity; addressing the United Nations General Assembly on the rights of indigenous peoples; getting on the ballot in 2006 when she ran for the Congressional seat once held by Shirley Chisholm.

"I am Black and beautiful," was Sister Ollie's guiding belief, Rev. Simpson said in concluding his eulogy, "and I want to tell you friends that not even death can take that away."

McClean is survived by: son, Calvin Jr.; brother, Joseph Willins; aunts, Osey Inniss and Irene Willins; niece and cousin, Shirley Newton-Husband and Eulene Inniss and; numerous aunts, cousins, nieces, and nephews around the diaspora.

Her students and friends are also all over the globe.


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