By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
When Dr. Amelia Ross-Hammond journeyed from Liberia to America in 1980, she had no idea she would someday visit the White House, serve on prestigious boards, or become a member of the Virginia Beach City Council.
Ross-Hammond will retire from Norfolk State University on June 30. But she is already eyeing her drawing board and contemplating more enterprising plans. For example, she will host the third annual Small, Women-owned and Minority-owned Business Forum on Sept. 30 at the Tidewater Community College-Virginia Beach campus from 8:30 a.m.-noon. She also will run for a second term on City Council.
“I am retiring but I am not heading off to another university,” Hammond said. “Norfolk has been good to me. I have been at Norfolk State for 18 years; but this is my 45th year of teaching. I have learned from my students as they have from me. I am praying everyone will realize HBCUs are valuable.”
Again, this is where her enterprising drawing board comes in. She plans to help promote Historically Black Colleges and Universities. And she plans to help launch an African-American Cultural Center in Virginia Beach. Currently, she and collaborators are eyeing a strip of real estate near Newtown and Diamond Springs Roads as the site for the proposed center.
“We need to share our stories,” said Hammond who left Liberia because of a military coup on April 12, 1980.
According to the Washington Post, “Thirteen leaders of Liberia’s toppled ruling elite were executed by firing squad before hundreds of shouting, cheering soldiers and civilians.”
“The 13 men, who had formed the top echelon … since Liberia’s founding 133 years ago by freed American slaves, died tied to posts with their backs to the Atlantic shore on which their 19th century forebears first set foot.”
Hammond, who has a habit of looking forward not backwards, said softly, “They burned our house. Our home was destroyed. It was horrible. There was so much loss. But my family was blessed. None of us were killed. I don’t talk about it too much because it was a sad time for the country.”
So did her progressively accomplished career in America spring from the coup’s ashes? Her father, an attorney, was the first mayor of Monrovia. As mayor from 1956-1970, her father welcomed dignitaries such as the Queen of England and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to Monrovia. He later served in the House of Delegates.
“You have to move on,” Ross-Hammond said. While her academic degrees may have vanished in flames when her family’s home was burned, she said, “The one thing I had left was my education. That’s why I tell my students knowledge is power.”
“I am not angry with all that has happened,” she said.
And her sterling resume may explain why. Before she headed to Colorado in 1980 to teach in an exchange program, she was the music and arts supervisor at the University of Liberia. There she directed a choir that performed at the Lincoln Center, Washington Center, and several American universities.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in music education at Ithaca College, her master’s at the College of New Jersey, and her doctoral degree in education-leadership-curriculum instruction at the University of Denver.
“If the coup had not happened I would have returned to Liberia,” she said. “I was content teaching music. The Colorado system offered me the chance to stay with them.”
Clearly, Ross-Hammond prefers to not dwell on her past. She spends little time looking back. Moreover, she does not like to speak at length about her own success story. But she would like to see more of it at the university from which she is retiring.
“It would help to share our stories, tell how it came be, and talk about the blood and sweat that went into a university like this because many did not have a university to go to at that time. There was not a school like this here.”
This means the increasingly responsible positions Ross-Hammond has held at NSU including first female choir director, music department chair, senior administrator, and director of the Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Program– well, she prefers to talk about the future.
“The retirement party at the Murray Center was very nice,” she said. “Thirty retired, faculty and staff, about 560 years of service were represented. I felt I gave it my best.”
Ross belongs to many organizations including the Virginia Council on the Status of Women and the Virginia Beach Community Development Corp. She is the worship leader at Baylake United Methodist Church. She has won national awards as a music educator.
She is the former vice chair of the electoral board, and a member of the Mayor’s African-American Roundtable. Records show she won 32.07 percent of the vote when she ran for city council in 2012. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf appointed her to the Honorary Consul General Republic of Liberia in 2009.
During the past three years in Virginia Beach she has helped increase (from 60 to 120) the number of small-and-minority-business owners at SWaM seminars. “The first year was to improve and enhance small and minority businesses.” At last year’s SwaM seminar, the keynote speaker was Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice Jones.
Reflecting on her distinguished career, she said softly, “Norfolk has been good to me.”