Dr. Dianne Swann-Wright, pictured here in 1992, held three positions at Eastern Mennonite University from 1990-98, including director of multicultural services and interim vice president for student life. EMU community members remember Swann-Wright, who passed away last week, as a truth-teller and passionate teacher of African American history. (EMU file photo)

Dianne Swann-Wright, known for historical research at Monticello, remembered for contributions to EMU

Dianne Swann-Wright, former director of multicultural programs at Eastern Mennonite University and a leading historian of African American history, died Jan. 23, 2018.

At the time of her death, she was director of the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park in Baltimore, Maryland.

A wake will take place at Vaughn Greene Funeral Home, 4905 York Rd., Baltimore, Maryland, on Monday, Jan. 29, from 4-8 p.m.

The funeral is at Bright Morning Star Church, RR 617, Dillwyn, Virginia, on Tuesday, Jan. 30 at noon.

A pioneer and champion

Swann-Wright joined the EMU community as an assistant in the learning center in August 1990. [She was then known as Dianne Wright.] She served as director of multicultural programs from 1993-97. During this time, she taught African American history courses and led cross-cultural groups to Kenya, encouraging African American students to learn more about their heritage.

From 1997-98, she became the first African American to hold a senior administrative role on campus when she served as interim vice president for student life.

While at EMU, she earned a doctorate in American history from University of Virginia.

From 1998 to 2005, Swann-Wright was director of African-American and special programs at Monticello. Her hiring as the first African American senior staff member was “a clear signal of the shift in the site’s programming and interpretation,” wrote historian Kendra Hamilton in 1999. Before her hiring by then-Director of Research Lucia “Cinder” Stanton,” Hamilton notes there was “a gaping crater in the institution’s allegedly comprehensive knowledge of life on Jefferson’s mountaintop.”

Swann-Wright and Stanton co-founded the Getting Word oral history project, which has identified and collected oral histories from descendants of families enslaved at Monticello. The duo also co-authored the official Monticello report linking Jefferson to Sally Hemings. Much of their research helped to develop programming and interpretation around African American life, experiences and culture at Monticello.

Influencing, empowering

At EMU, Swann-Wright was no less influential.

“She was the reason why I was able to succeed as a student at EMU, and she was why I came back to be her successor at EMU as director of multicultural services,” says Melody Pannell, now a professor of social work at EMU. “She was the reason why I had the courage to return again and teach. She believed in me.”

Several other alumni share similarly strong admiration and affection for Swann-Wright. “Outstanding woman and supporter,” wrote one alumna in a Facebook post.

Swann-Wright’s passion for sharing and celebrating African American history was remembered by Professor Emeritus Vernon Jantzi, who served with her on an advisory council to support multicultural efforts, appreciation and programming.

Pannell also recalls this influence: “She ensured that as a student of color, I was immersed, engaged and empowered by voices within the community-at-large that reflected my history and ancestry. She took me and other students to meet in person Cornell West, Maya Angelou, Sonya Sanchez and James Farmer, powerful voices that each spoke to the importance of raising my own voice, critically and with creatively, about issues of social justice.”

Longtime friend Linda Alley first met and worked with Swann-Wright in what was then called the Student Life Division.

“I watched as Di went far beyond her job description in mentoring students, many of whom kept in touch with her for years,” Alley said. “She would report to me how proud she was or which ones needed extra prayer. She sent pictures of them and their children, because they were her spiritual family. My own son benefited from a tutoring session when she came to our house and spent some hours with him. Teaching was her gift, and she did it from a place of deep wisdom.”

Swann-Wright had an insightful way of helping faculty and administrators to see the causes and potential effects of decisions, Alley said. “EMU would be a different place without the lingering effects of Dianne’s sojourn there.”

“She told once told me that her life’s work was helping people to recognize and respond to society’s lies and views. She called this ‘the Great Re-Education Project,’” recalls nursing professor Ann Hershberger. “Dianne was deeply influential among EMU faculty and staff due to her honesty, openness and ability to name truth.”

Lee Snyder was academic dean when Swann-Wright was at EMU. “We worked closely together. I learned much from Dianne, a generous colleague and dear friend,” Snyder said. “She taught me the power of story in furthering appreciation of diversity and she modeled a gracious spirit which has enriched all of us who knew her.”

When Snyder was president at Bluffton College, she invited Swann-Wright to speak about her Monticello research.

“And we all celebrated with her when her book, A Way Out of No Way: Claiming Family and Freedom in the New South, was published in 2002 by University of Virginia Press,” Snyder said, recalling that much of that research was completed while Swann-Wright was balancing full-time work at EMU with her doctoral work.

Remembrances of Dianne Swann-Wright are encouraged (use the comment box below) and will be shared with the family. 

Discussion on “Dianne Swann-Wright, known for historical research at Monticello, remembered for contributions to EMU

  1. I will remember Dianne as a great friend of my family, as a caring person,and as an exceptional historian/scholar who helped all of us to not only to search for the truth, but to share it with others.The ground breaking research that Dianne and Cinder Stanton did at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello continues to serve as a model of how to interpret historic homes from a wholistic perspective.

  2. Diane was my mentor when I was a student at EMU. I could never fully articulate how much she meant to me. Even after I graduated she continued to be one of the most important people in my life. She treated me like a daughter. She encouraged me, she prayed for me, we shared many laughs and some tears together. Being a mom, she always pushed me to continue to follow my own passions, dreams, and personal development. We were there for one another during difficult times. She is the reason I developed a love for reading. She cultivated a thirst for knowledge because her own thirst for knowledge was contagious. She became a beloved member of my family and a dear loved one to my children. She would find out what they were passionate about and talk to them about how to cultivate their own talents and interests. She found out one of my daughters liked to cook. She also knowing that my children’s father was deceased but with roots in the South decided she needed to connect her heritage and her cooking. So she spent a weekend teaching her how to cook things that a young girl with southern roots would learn from her own grandmother. She put her own grandmothers apron on my daughter and they were so proud of the delicious salmon cakes and peach cobbler she mastered while visiting. I could never ever fully articulate what she meant to me. Losing her felt as significant as losing my own mother. Her transition from this life to the next, while glorious for her still leaves many of us heart broken. I have enduring friendships from my time at EMU. Because of Diane and those other enduring friendships from my time there with women I now feel are my sisters, I will always be grateful for attending EMU.

  3. I grieve this loss. I was privileged to work in the same division with Dianne. One time I made a visit to her home church in Dillwyn, Va….she loved her congregation and wanted to share them with us…an unforgettable memory. She was a special person in so many respects.

  4. Ms. Swan-Right taught me many things during my time at EMU (94-98) From being accountable to one another, to looking beyond yourself, but most importantly she taught me to stand up for my rights as a human being and to believe in myself. She was the first person who had my back and held my hand as I dealt with discrimination. She showed me what compassion is and the power of words. She was instrumental in my success as a student because I knew I had a strong support when I needed it or felt alone. She is resting in Glory now, I know, and I will always be grateful that that the Creator had her exactly where I needed her to be in those moments of my life.

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