A Tale Untold: Preserving a Family’s History
The erasure from history of the lynching of her great-great-grandfather put Roosevelt University alumna Doria Dee Johnson (BA, ’07) on track to become an African American historian and international human rights activist.
A decade after graduating with a bachelor’s in history, Johnson is now close to completing a PhD dissertation at the University of Wisconsin–Madison on early 20th century African American migration, lynching and the development of the black community in Evanston, Illinois.
While this will no doubt be a major achievement, the PhD will not match the satisfaction she felt last fall when a historical marker was placed in Abbeville, South Carolina on the site of the mob lynching of her great-great-grandfather, Anthony Crawford. The lynching and subsequent seizure of his property took place a century ago.
“It was one of the most important days in my life,” Johnson said of the Oct. 24, 2016 ceremony that drew 300 people, including more than 100 of her relatives; family members of Emmett Till, Ida B. Wells and Malcolm X; and Roosevelt University Associate Professor of History Erik Gellman.
“There’s no better feeling than being able to right a wrong and preserve what’s right for history,” said Johnson, whose journey to bring to light the wrongdoing done to Crawford and his descendants began in 1988, when Johnson looked into her family’s genealogy.
A phone call to an Abbeville church, answered by a cousin she did not know she had, started the ball rolling. She immediately traveled to Abbeville for a family reunion, where she met 100 newfound cousins, including some who had heard about the mob lynching and seizure of hundreds of acres of land that Crawford farmed for cotton.
After completing dozens of interviews and reviewing hundreds of documents, including an investigation into the lynching by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Johnson published a piece about her family’s story on a genealogy website in 1999. Shortly after, the Associated Press contacted and featured Johnson in its 2001 investigative series “Torn from the Land,” which documented 57 cases in which land was stolen from African Americans, including the Crawford family.
“There’s no better feeling than being able to right a wrong and preserve what’s right for history,”
– Doria Johnson (BA, ’07)
Meanwhile, Johnson called members of Congress regarding injustices done to Crawford and his family. She also became active on the public lecture circuit, telling as many people as would listen to her family’s story.
In 2005, the U.S. Senate issued a formal apology to Johnson and the Crawford family. She came to Roosevelt a year later, convinced by scholars she’d met that she could get a fellowship for a PhD to continue her work. First, however, she needed a bachelor’s degree.
“I chose Roosevelt because of Harold Washington,” Johnson said of Chicago’s first African American mayor, who was president of the Class of 1949. “My Roosevelt professors supported me while I was at the University as well as after I graduated and continued on for my PhD,” she said.
In 2016, Johnson took a year off from her doctoral work to take a Nelson Mandela International Dialogue fellowship, which elevates conversations about genocide and other human rights abuses to the world stage. As a Mandela fellow, Johnson traveled to South Africa, Sri Lanka and other parts of the world, where she discussed state-sponsored violence against African Americans in the United States.
She also worked with the nationally recognized nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative to locate the marker in the Abbeville town square where a mob initially accosted Crawford.
“Being there to witness Doria Johnson unveil the historical marker in the town square … hers was an act of bravery with great significance,” Gellman said. “She knows that the South’s reckoning with its racially violent past represents a way for its people to build a more democratic and inclusive society in the present.”
Johnson, who will receive her PhD later this year, hopes to continue marking lynching sites around the country, with a goal to “emphasize lynchings so they are made part of the narrative in history textbooks.”
Roosevelt Alumnus Competes for BBC Singer of the World
After eight years as an opera star in the making, Roosevelt University vocal performance alumnus John Chest (MM, ’09) is hitting the big time as a finalist in the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition.
“It’s a moment in my career that will be truly electric,” said Chest, who studied at Roosevelt with former CCPA professor and Metropolitan Opera star David Holloway. Chest, 31, has sung professionally since 2011, primarily in Europe.
The Roosevelt graduate credits his CCPA training for preparing him to sing leading roles, including many appearances at Deutsche Opera Berlin where he has starred in Billy Budd and other productions.
“Ten years ago I wouldn’t have thought I’d be competing at this level,” Chest said. “My CCPA professors gave me guidance and encouragement to pursue a career that has me singing today at A-level opera houses.”
Holloway, who directs the Santa Fe Opera’s Apprentice Singing Program, called Chest “one of his most talented students.”
“He is simply an unusually talented singer and he is also personable and real as a person,” Holloway said. “It is no surprise to me that he is enjoying such success.”
After graduating from Roosevelt in 2009, Chest joined the Santa Fe Opera as an apprentice singer, and then went on to Munich’s Opera Studio, where he gave more than 80 performances. He was also a member of the Merola Opera Program in San Francisco, where he received rave reviews for his role as Guglielmo in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, and starred recently as Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro at Opera Philadelphia.
One of Roosevelt University’s First Graduates, Howard Rosenberg Leaves Legal Legacy
Howard Rosenberg stood in line at Navy Pier on a cold February day in 1947, a month after returning from his service in the U.S. Army. He awaited registration for the new (since closed) branch of the University of Illinois at Navy Pier, ready to begin his education.
“After standing there about two hours, I asked one of the assistants whether we were going to get in to register,” Rosenberg said. “She said ‘I doubt it.’”
Rosenberg queried his brother about other colleges in the area.
“He said ‘There’s a new college called Roosevelt College. It is a radical place,’” Rosenberg said. He registered for Philosophy 101 and said he “was hooked.”
Rosenberg completed his Bachelor of Arts at Roosevelt in 1949 and was among the first graduates of what would become Roosevelt University. He went on to earn his law degree at DePaul University.
After two short years of practicing law in Chicago representing a credit company, Rosenberg decided to move to Denver where he began a lifelong commitment to giving back to the community.
Rosenberg took the lessons of social justice from Roosevelt to heart by founding, with other Denver-based attorneys, the Thursday Night Bar in 1966. Known today as the Metro Volunteer Lawyers, the organization provides pro-bono legal services to those in great need, a role in which Rosenberg served for decades.
“The inspiration that I got at Roosevelt was able to serve me well as a legal aid attorney,” Rosenberg said. Soon after, he made his first gift to Roosevelt, and has continued to give to current RU students to this day.
Rosenberg also went on to teach law as a tenured professor at the University of Denver’s Sturn College of Law, bringing his compassion for the less fortunate to the next generation of lawyers and social justice advocates. It all culminated in a career he never imagined.
“I thought that Roosevelt really set me on a career path that I probably never would have followed,” Rosenberg said.
“Roosevelt kind of saved me by accident and got me to thinking about going to law school, which was a really great decision for me. I really liked being a lawyer and representing low-income people.”
“Roosevelt…got me to thinking about going to law school, which was a really great decision for me. I really liked being a lawyer and representing low-income people.”
–Howard Rosenberg (BA, ’49)
Rosenberg is retired and lives with his wife, Kristen, in Denver.
Aide to U.S. Senator Finds Calling for Social Justice at Roosevelt
Tamara Jordan came to Roosevelt University in 2010 after returning home from U.S. military service in Afghanistan, where a suicide bombing shook her station base to the core.
“Taking social justice courses at Roosevelt made me realize that a lot of people have struggles. They need someone who can advocate for them,” said the 2016 Roosevelt graduate, who today is an aide to U.S. Senator Dick Durbin.
A native of Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, Jordan began her Roosevelt journey as a political science major, but had to drop out in 2012 due to difficulties in adjusting to life outside the military. After a three-year hiatus, she returned to the University in 2015 and changed her major.
“At its best, the social justice major at Roosevelt helps students put personal experience in a social perspective and supports them in developing skills for making change for the better,” said June Lapidus, associate professor of economics and coordinator of Roosevelt’s Social Justice Program.
As a Roosevelt student, Jordan interned at the Greater Chicagoland Food Depository, helping veterans receive benefits, and at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center. From there, she landed an internship at Durbin’s Chicago office that became a full-time job shortly after she graduated in 2016.
“Taking social justice courses at Roosevelt made me realize that a lot of people have struggles. They need someone who can advocate for them.”
–Tamara Jordan (BA, ’16), Aide to Sen. Dick Durbin
“Social justice has helped me to find different ways to really reach people, and not just to shut the door on their needs,” said Jordan, who handles issues and calls related to veterans for 13 counties in northern Illinois.
Recently, she began mentoring at-risk youths as a volunteer with the not-for-profit Urban Warriors program on Chicago’s South Side. She also counsels veterans returning from assignments with the National Guard through the Warrior-to-Warrior Program. Her goal is to get a master’s degree and climb the career ladder in public policy or politics.
“I loved my Roosevelt experience,” she said. “It’s something that developed my focus and helped make my life more meaningful.”
CCPA Takes On the Great White Way
Since its founding, Roosevelt University has produced hundreds of theater professionals, including alumni who are Broadway stars today.
Ray Frewen, assistant director of Roosevelt’s Theatre Conservatory, credits the Chicago College of Performing Arts’ (CCPA) seasoned faculty, famed alumni, historically artistic downtown Chicago location and audition process for attracting highly talented student prospects.
This year, CCPA has auditioned 600 prospective students for next year’s program — 70 students have been chosen to take part in the three majors covering the program. Musical theatre is one of the majors that has successfully led its graduates from the classroom to the Broadway stage.
Graduates Courtney Reed, Stephane Duret, Scott Stangland and John Michael Finley all currently appear in award-winning Broadway productions.
Reed (BFA, ’06) stars as Princess Jasmine in Disney’s Aladdin The Musical. From the musical’s Seattle debut to its current Broadway run, Reed’s Jasmine has appeared in regional and international productions for six consecutive years.
Duret, Stangland and Finley have nearly two dozen musical theater credits among them. Last year, Duret joined the Tony Award-winning show, Kinky Boots. The 2007 graduate’s additional credits include Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Ragtime and Aida.
In 2016, Stangland made his Broadway debut as Pierre, a role originated by recording artist Josh Groban, in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Stangland earned his MFA in 2005 and has since had roles in the Broadway hit, Once; on NBC shows Chicago Fire and Crisis; and in the films Contagion and The End of the Tour.
Prior to receiving his BFA in 2013, Finley performed in eight stage productions. Two years after graduating, Finley landed roles in Les Misérables and The Book of Mormon — in the latter, he currently appears as Elder Cunningham.
Frewen described Finley’s Les Misérables performance as the most moving experience of his life. “I just burst into tears and couldn’t talk when I saw John,” Frewen said. “I’ve worked [in production] on Les Mis for years, but it’s very moving seeing one of your kids doing it onstage.”
Mandy Modic (BFA, ’11) defined CCPA’s family dynamic as being an enjoyable part of her program experience. “You feel safe to do this vulnerable work in front of your peers, because you know everything about each other,” Modic said. “You’re able to have that closeness to your professors, where you feel like you’re all working together.”
Modic has appeared in over a dozen musicals, two network television shows and her first feature-length film, When the Lights Go Out, was released late last year.
While talent is the common thread in all of the above-mentioned alumni, Frewen said the key to success goes beyond talent. “It’s about if you are professional and a good person to work with,” Frewen said. “Control what you can control. Your talent will get you in the door, but professionalism will get you to the second job, and then the next.”
From stage to television to film, these five musical theatre alumni have taken their training at Roosevelt to the next level
Merle Dandridge (BFA, ’98)
With a 20-year-plus career — including work in film, television, video game animation and on stage — Merle Dandridge has graced the sets of four films and more than 20 TV shows. The Okinawa, Japan born actress and singer’s five Broadway appearances include roles in Spamalot, Rent and Aida. Dandridge’s voice work can also be heard in close to a dozen video games. Currently, Dandridge can be seen starring alongside Oprah Winfrey and Lynn Whitfield in OWN TV’s hit series, Greenleaf.
Travis Taylor (BFA, ’10)
No stranger to the regional stage, Travis Taylor has performed in several theatrical productions, including Les Misérables, Beauty and the Beast, Sweeney Todd, Camelot and Into the Woods. Taylor has appeared on television; and, in 2013, starred as the Hairdresser in the North American Broadway tour of Phantom of the Opera — whose national run continues throughout this year.
Damon Gillespie (’12–’14)
TV and stage actor Damon Gillespie hit the ground running after his enrollment in the Musical Theatre Program. In mid-2014, Gillespie joined the ensemble cast of Newsies on Broadway. The following year, the Tennessee native appeared on Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer. In 2016, he made it back to the stage in the ensemble cast of Aladdin The Musical. This year, Gillespie will appear in the TV movie adaptation of the novel, Drama High, which costars Rosie Perez and Marley Shelton.
Tiffany Tatreau (BFA, ’15)
Tiffany Tatreau’s role of Ocean Rosenberg in Ride the Cyclone has taken her from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater to the off-Broadway MCC Theater. Lending her voice to a variety of regional stage productions -— such as Sister Act, Mamma Mia, A Christmas Carol and Spring Awakening — the California native was selected as one of Chicago Tribune’s “Hot New Faces of Chicago Theater 2016.”
Cole Doman (BFA, ’15)
Already a stage actor in several regional productions before completing his degree, Cole Doman’s roles in TV, film and on stage have continued to pour in, even after graduation. In the past three years, Doman has appeared in countless stage productions at the renowned Drury Lane Theater. The Philadelphia native has also landed roles on NBC’s Chicago Fire, Showtime’s Shameless and ABC’s Modern Family. Doman made his film debut in the drama, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, which won the Silver Q Hugo Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. Doman’s lead role as Henry Gamble was chosen as one of the “Best Breakthrough Performances of 2016” by the online movie publication, The Film Stage.
Like keeping up with your alma mater? Want to learn more about new and upcoming alumni events in your area?
Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates on Roosevelt alumni news and happenings on campus. We’ll not only be featuring news, networking opportunities and reunion events, but also memorable photos and stories from your days at Roosevelt. So give us a like, follow or tweet — connecting with your Roosevelt alumni network has never been easier. Make sure to use the hashtag #LifelongLaker when sharing your memories with us.