Stepping onto Spelman’s campus was a homecoming for Claudia Walker. The promise of Black womanhood had never been more evident. “My K-12 experience was at predominantly white schools, so going to Spelman was a culture shock for me,” she recalls. “I was at a campus that not only had so much rich history, but there were so many other Black women who were on the road to doing or had already done amazing things. It was really a point of inspiration. There was so much community. Another thing that really separated my experience at Spelman from other experiences is that you had professors and other administrators on campus that were really focused on helping you see your potential and really meeting it. Even though I was coming from California and moving all the way across the country to Atlanta, the professors and the community really felt familial. It felt like I had aunts and cousins on campus who were pushing me beyond my comfort zone because they saw so much in me. I’ve always told people that Spelman is a really magical experience. It’s not perfect, but it’s a very unique experience in that it is historically Black and it’s an all women’s institution. There’s so much history on the campus that you can’t help but feel inspired and changed once you walk out the doors four years later.”
Her tenure at Spelman irrevocably altered her path. When facing the unconventional, she boldly forged ahead without hesitation. “Spelman prepared me by helping me understand that there was no challenge that I couldn’t face or tackle. Had I not gone to Spelman, I would’ve never ended up on Wall Street. I was an English major, business minor, and I actually ended up taking a summer internship because I was recommended by one of my professors. I recognized that there were so many other young people who were finance majors or econ majors or perhaps their parents were working on Wall Street or in the financial banking industry. I knew from having been a student at Spelman that there wasn’t any challenge that I couldn’t face. Even though my major might not have been completely aligned with ending up on Wall Street or my background – I didn’t have anyone in my family who had worked on Wall Street or in the banking industry, plus looking at the makeup, it was a very white, male dominated industry – I still recognized that the door was open and that it was my responsibility to take full advantage of the opportunities that were afforded to me to work really hard to network and if there were things that I didn’t understand, to find ways to fill in those gaps. Truly, the sky was the limit. Again, I got that confidence from all of the years that I spent on Spelman’s campus.” Historically, Black Wall Street buoyed a vibrant community determined to prosper despite racism. “People like O.W. Gurley and J.B. Stradford, who were the initial founders of Black Wall Street, really did it out of a sense of desperation. They recognized that because of segregation, there were so many opportunities that weren’t open to them, but they also recognized that there were so many incredibly talented people in that community. There were people who were natural entrepreneurs. There were people that were lawyers or doctors or teachers. They recognized that if we create this community where Black people can come and feel a sense of connection and support, then we don’t have to worry so much about not being connected or being discriminated against in the white parts of town because we can create our own community. We have our own schools, we have our grocery stores, we’ve got recreational centers, we’ve got movie theaters, we’ve got our own hotels. Black Wall Street is really a story of perseverance and ingenuity, and it truly shows people coming together for the common good of the larger community.”
Motherhood galvanized Claudia to dream bigger, reaching for the literary stars to ensure that her children developed a worldview steeped in Black pride. The reaction to her endeavor served as the kindling for a much broader movement seeking to redress the mainstream absence of Black history. “I was an English major and loved writing, but I went into finance and then into education. I didn’t do as much writing as I did in college. I also became a mom and really recognized that there were some gaps in the things that I wanted my own children or my students to know. In 2020, I started to write the book that I wanted my children to be able to read. I really didn’t have this larger idea of creating a publishing company, but it started with one book. When I released it and got feedback from the community, I realized that I had tapped into something, and that there was so much more that I could do to be part of the solution instead of complaining about the problem.” Crucially, Claudia is providing Black children with a sense of belonging and identity. “I launched HBCU Prep School to create educational materials from books to puzzles to videos to classes and apparel that would truly celebrate Black culture or that would teach children about things that I thought were important through the lens of Black culture. So teaching about higher education through HBCUs, teaching about financial literacy through the story of Black Wall Street. The next story is going to be teaching about cybersecurity, again, through the lens of Black children. There’s so many ideas that I have and ways that I want to educate, because I recognize that we can start with books, but sometimes there’s students who don’t necessarily learn through reading. Maybe it’s through music, or maybe it’s through games, or maybe it’s through doing. I’m really excited about all the ways and opportunities that we have to tap into stories that haven’t been told and to make sure that Black children are feeling represented in the stories that we’re telling.”
Black happiness and Black success are taking center stage through her books. Black kids deserve to grow up with an understanding of their identity independent of pain. “I want to make sure that the stories that I’m telling are rooted and centered in joy, and that they don’t start with slavery. Because I think that sometimes that’s the narrative that kids are taught in school, that Black people were enslaved and there’s so much oppression and woe is you and you’ve got to fight against it. And while some of that is true, that’s not the full story. For example, in The ABCs of Black Wall Street, we tell about the entrepreneurs and the activists that created the thriving communities, the roller skating rink, the candy store, the law firm, the medical hospital. But we don’t talk about the burning of the community. While that is absolutely central to the story, I think that when Black children are only told about stories of oppression, it can lead to a lot of trauma.” If a child believes in themselves, the possibilities are endless. “I want Black children, like all children, to experience childhood and learn about their culture in a way that feels joyous, in a way that they can feel proud of, in a way that they can look and say, ‘Hey, if that person did it, then I can do it too.’ Or, ‘You know what, maybe I haven’t heard of someone doing the thing that I want to do, but because other people have been trailblazers, I can also be a trailblazer.’ It’s really rooting the stories in joy so that they can feel unapologetic about who they are.”
Claudia hopes her company will water the seeds of Black admiration, regardless of any child’s particular background. “I really want my products, whether they’re books or puzzles or classes or videos, to be opportunities for children to look and to celebrate. The products represent Black kids and therefore all children. I think that when other children read the books or the books are read to them, or they see the videos, or they’re playing some of the games that they also recognize that, ‘Oh, Black culture, there’s some joy here.’ It’s not always about marching or protesting against an inequity or an injustice.” To interpret and revere Blackness for all the ebullience that it represents is to envelop history in its honest entirety. “My goal is to make sure that I’m creating projects so that Black children feel and understand that their experience and the experience of their ancestors are an integral part of not only the Black experience, but the American experience, and that it’s also part of world history.” Such grounding will nourish the minds of tomorrow. “When Black children see themselves reflected in the stories that are told, when they see the things that they’re interested in reflected in the curriculum in their schools, I believe that they then feel a sense of empowerment. And what does that mean? It means that they’re empowered to ask questions, that they’re empowered to speak up. If there’s something that they hear that doesn’t resonate with them or doesn’t reflect their experience, whether they’re the only Black student in the class, or they’re one of many, they feel empowered to say, ‘This is my story. It may not be the story of, or the experience of, other white children in the class. It may not be the experience of the 20 other Black children in the class, but it’s my experience.’ And so there’s a sense of empowerment there as a young child. It drives you into the teen years and into adulthood with the recognition that you have the power to change things, that you have the power to do the things that resonate with you.”
First and foremost, we must allow Black children to be children, Claudia asserts. “My goal is to make sure that Black children have as normal of a childhood as possible, meaning that they’re not adultified, meaning that they are not scapegoated or made to feel inferior. I try to do that through the stories that I tell and the different products that I’m offering. I recognize that I can’t do it single handedly. It has to be a collective effort, but I’m trying to do it one book at a time, one child at a time. My hope for children in the future is that they feel completely empowered to do all of the things that any other child believes that they can do.” Circumstance can never single-handedly dictate one’s potential. “No one goes through life without any obstacles, but I want kids to recognize that the obstacles sometimes aren’t as they appear, that they are things that they can overcome. It’s giving them the tools to know how to navigate, to know how to negotiate, to know how to lean on other people, whether that’s a parent or a mentor or a teacher, to help them navigate some of those challenges or roadblocks. But they realize that these aren’t real roadblocks. It’s that early sense of agency that makes them understand that, ‘This might have happened, but it doesn’t mean that I’m stuck here. It doesn’t mean that there’s nothing that I can do.’ There’s this sense of empowerment and drive that lets me know by understanding other people’s stories that I can actually take action, that this isn’t a hurdle that I cannot overcome.”
Claudia anticipates that HBCU Prep School will continue to have plenty of new students. “I’m just going to continue to do more work. Sometimes I get caught up in wanting to do more. I’m just a one woman show right now in terms of creating the content. And so sometimes I get caught up in wanting to get more products out. But I recognize that that quality is really important to me and authenticity is really important to me.” She aspires to have a coalition of folks who believe in her mission. “I’d really love to build a team of like-minded people who really understand the work that I’m doing so that I can reach as many young people and as many educators and parents and school districts and community organizations as possible. That’s what I’m really trying to focus on because the need is so great. I want to do as much as I can with the time that I have to impact as many people as possible.” If a single child feels a sense of pride in themselves or their culture, she has catalyzed a global shift, tiny heart by tiny heart.
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Claudia Walker Encourages Children to Rejoice in Black Pride with HBCU Prep School Books. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Claudia Walker.