Three women were honored Saturday in Baton Rouge for their roles in promoting social change and breaking racial and gender barriers in the court system, higher education and in voting rights issues.
The inaugural Women of Excellence Luncheon cited Bernette Johnson, first black chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court; Dolores Spikes, the first woman in the state to head a public college and first in the nation to head a university system; and Jean Armstrong, former president of the Louisiana League of Women Voters in Baton Rouge and co-founder of the Louisiana Voting Rights Network, formed to coordinate post-Hurricane Katrina outreach efforts to displaced voters scattered throughout the 50 states.
“These are women who have made instrumental changes and paved the way for women today,” said Chesla Boatner, luncheon chairwoman and Spelman College graduate.
About 150 people dined at Saturday’s event presented by the Baton Rouge Chapter of the National Alumnae Association of Spelman College at Mount Pilgrim Family Life Center.
The luncheon was dedicated to the memory of Dorothy Myers Stepteau, Spelman graduate and co-organizer of the event, who died in a traffic accident in January.
Saturday’s honorees, who also received recognition from state legislators and a Baton Rouge Metro councilwoman, told the audience they have faced life’s challenges both with determination and perseverance.
Johnson’s appointment as chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court in February was not without struggle. She’d served as a District Court trial judge and then as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. She filed a federal lawsuit in July following a dispute over whether she was entitled to take over the position vacated by Chief Justice Catherine “Kitty” Kimball.
U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan ruled that Johnson had seniority over Justice Jeffrey Victory, who joined the court in 1995, a year after Johnson. The Louisiana Supreme Court further ruled that Johnson’s years of appointed service deemed her entitled to the position.
Johnson said graduating from Spelman College in 1964 gave her the tools she would one day need to overcome adversity and to give back.
“We understood there were challenges in the world and Spelman educated us to meet those challenges,” Johnson said. “We were motivated to pay it forward.”
Spikes, a former Southern University instructor, became the first woman to head a Louisiana public college or university and the first woman in the country to head a university system, Southern University, from 1988 to 1996. She headed up the University of Maryland Eastern Shore from 1997 to 2001.
“It’s humbling,” she said of her award. “So many women are deserving.”
Spikes was instrumental in negotiating a higher education desegregation settlement in a long-running court battle between the state and federal governments and she defended continuing historically black colleges in the face of calls from others for full integration.
She also once spoke up about continuing to provide remediation programs for college students who needed the extra services and support.
Spikes, who is retired, said her greatest challenge to date is supporting her two grandchildren. Spikes’ daughter Rhonda Kathleen Spikes-Pete was a Spelman College graduate who died in 2010 of a heart attack, Spikes said.
“My mission is to take care of my two grandkids and that’s more of a job than running a college,” she said smiling. “It’s a full-time job.”
Spikes said one grandchild is attending law school and the other is attending a vocational school.
The luncheon also honored Armstrong and her challenges in heading up the Louisiana League of Women Voters in Baton Rouge for 18 years. She is most proud of her lobbying efforts which were instrumental in the passage of the Louisiana Satellite Voting Act that enables displaced voters to vote in precincts in parishes throughout the state.
She said she learned to push through life’s difficulties with one major motto.
“If you hit a brick wall — turn, twist and get up and get over the brick wall,” she told the audience.
Armstrong said her mother taught her to read by age 3 and her father often assigned her social and political topics to write about at age 7. She said the teachers at her parochial school also influenced her life.
“Your life is in service to people,” she said they told her.
Armstrong’s contributions also include her program, Leaders With Vision, a forum for various discussions and topics; and becoming the first women to earn the “Certified Economic Developer” designation by the American Economic Development Council.
Southern University Law student Shelvia Grant, also a Spelman College graduate, said the honorees were inspiring.
“I think it’s inspirational and encouraging seeing women like Armstrong hold leadership positions in the community,” Grant said. “Dr. Spikes is a living legend and role model. When I met her following the luncheon, she was warm and down to earth.”
Grant said Johnson’s strides in the judiciary field prove that women can accomplish whatever they set their minds to.
“Justice Johnson is a woman of impact and she’s inspired me to never put a limit on my potential,” Grant said.