(pictured above: First Lady Michelle Obama speaks.)
Here, in Winston-Salem, her adopted hometown, she was loved for those things, too, but more so for her humility, generosity and neighborliness.
“We have lost a great member and a great friend,” Dr. Serenus Churn said of Dr. Maya Angelou Saturday as he eulogized her from the stately wooden pulpit in Wake Forest University’s Wait Chapel.
Angelou was a member of Churn’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church flock for more than 25 years. Churn officiated a more than two hour-long memorial service, during which friends and family, one-by-one, talked of Angelou’s great capacity for love and strong aversion to barriers – racial or otherwise.
“All of you loved her, as we loved her, and she loved us all,” Angelou’s grandson Elliott Matthew Jones said, speaking on behalf of his family.
The more than 2,000 attendees who packed the chapel for the private service were testament to Angelou’s boundless love. They were black, white and every shade in between; some were rich and famous, but most were local residents – folks Angelou had endeared herself to (and vice versa) over the last 32 years.
Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts sat next to Dr. John and Sarah Mendez, whom Angelou worked with in the 1980s to free Darryl Hunt, a local black man wrongfully convicted of raping and killing a white woman. The children of Drs. Chad and Jane Stephens, whom Angelou helped launch a foundation to aid orphans in Kenya, sat on a row that was sandwiched between ones where the children of Malcolm X (Attallah) and Martin Luther King Jr. (Bernice) sat. Burlington-based indie film director Cornelius Muller, whose movie “Find a Way” reportedly moved Angelou to tears, settled a few chairs away from R&B songbird India.Arie.
And just behind U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, whose late husband received help from Angelou to launch the biannual National Black Theatre Festival.
Ed Wilson sat nearby as well. The venerable former Wake Forest provost and his wife, Emily, befriended Angelou when she accepted the lifelong Reynolds Professor of American Studies position at Wake in 1982.
Describing her as a generous neighbor and friend to the community, Wilson said the love the Wake Forest family, in particular, felt for Angelou was requited.
“We know that Maya Angelou belonged to America, and, indeed, the world, but we liked to think she belonged foremost – after her family – to Wake Forest,” he said.
Angelou passed away – or, as Churn put it, “beautifully transitioned to the stars” – in her sleep on May 28 at the age 86. Her son, Guy Johnson, said decades of working as a professional dancer on unyielding floors and respiratory ailments had taken their toll on Angelou’s body. Her spirit, though, was never infirm, he said, even after her frailties left her tethered to a wheelchair. Former President Bill Clinton discovered that the last time he saw Angelou – April 10 at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin to mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.
Clinton expressed surprise that Angelou had endured the long trip to Texas.
“‘Just because I’m wheelchair-bound doesn’t mean I don’t get around,’” was her riposte.
Angelou will be ever-linked to Clinton because of “On the Pulse of Morning,” the poem she wrote for and delivered at his first inauguration on Jan. 20, 1993. Her bond to another memorial speaker – Oprah Winfrey – is even more well known.
Winfrey said they met in the late 1970s and bonded over the years to the point where she became Angelou’s “daughter” and Angelou became her “spiritual queen mother.”
“The loss I feel, I cannot describe,” said Winfrey, who reportedly spent the week leading up to Saturday’s service in Winston-Salem helping to plan every meticulous detail. “Maya Angelou was the greatest woman that I have ever known.”
First Lady Michelle Obama said Angelou’s words – both those in her books like “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and poems like “Phenomenal Woman” inspired her – showing it was possible for a “little black girl from the Southside of Chicago” to go all the way to the White House.
“Dr. Angelou’s words sustained me on every step on my journey,” the First Lady said.
Ambassador Andrew Young, who stood with Angelou during the Civil Rights battles of yesteryear, said her body of work and spirit will continue to inspire and drive future generations.
“Our sister, our mother, our friend … Will always be with us,” he said.
The service was an emotional affair for many of the participants. Valerie Ashford Simpson and Allyson Williams delivered songs through tears. Johnson, Winfrey and Cicely Tyson, who had known Angelou for more than 50 years, also choked up.
The way which Angelou loved makes it impossible to not feel an emptiness, a longing, her friends and family said.
“Her acceptance, love and care for people was unmatched … If she made you feel half as special as she made me feel, you have been blessed,” Colin Ashanti Johnson, her grandson, said.