Remembering Ramona Edelin, The Educator Turned Activist Who Popularized The Term ‘African American’


April 10, 2024

Dr. Ramona Hodge Edelin, an educator and activist who helped popularize the term “African American” in the late 1980s, died February 19 from cancer at her home in Washington D.C., The Washington Post reports. She was 78 years old.

Ramona Hodge (later Edelin) was born in Los Angeles on September 4, 1945. Her mother, Annette Lewis Phinazee, was the first woman to earn a doctorate in library science from Columbia University, and she encouraged a young Ramona to pursue academia, a passion she would promote throughout her life. 

After graduating from high school, she received a bachelor’s degree in religious and philosophical studies in 1967 from Fisk University, an HBCU in Nashville. That same year, she married Kenneth C. Edelin, a gynecologist who was convicted of manslaughter (and later acquitted on appeal) after performing a legal abortion in Boston in 1973. The couple would divorce a year later.


Edelin completed a master’s degree from the University of East Anglia in England in 1969 while her husband was stationed nearby during a stint with the U.S. Air Force. She would go on to earn her doctorate at Boston University in 1981 and receive a PhD in philosophy, writing her dissertation on civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois.

In 1973, Edelin helped launch the Afro-American studies department at Northeastern University in Boston in 1973. She encouraged the department to change its name to “African American studies,” invoking a term that was used among scholars but seldom used by the general public.

The term “African American” was later popularized by national Black leaders during the African-American Summit, a 1989 gathering organized by civil rights leader and former presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson. He and other Black leaders in the group decided to use the term “African American” at Dr. Edelin’s suggestion. She argued that they should refer to themselves as African Americans instead of “Blacks.” The term offered historical context, she later said to The Boston Globe, and linked Black Americans to the global African diaspora. And the idea caught on.


“Calling ourselves African Americans is the first step in the cultural offensive,” she told Ebony magazine, saying the name change led to a “cultural renaissance” in which Black Americans could reconnect with their history and heritage that was stripped from them during the Middle Passage and slavery. “Who are we if we don’t acknowledge our motherland? When a child in a ghetto calls himself African American, immediately he’s international. You’ve taken him from the ghetto and put him on the globe.”

Dr. Edelin lived the majority of her life in the nation’s capital where she was a staunch advocate for charter schools and helped change the landscape of D.C. education. She served as president and chief executive of the National Urban Coalition from 1988 to 1998 and oversaw programs that included a STEM initiative to promote math and science education, especially among children of color.

“Without her leadership, it’s safe to say that the charter school movement in the United States, and certainly the nation’s capital, would not be where it is today,” Ariel Johnson, the head of the D.C. Charter School Alliance, wrote in a tribute.


Dr. Edelin is survived by two children from her marriage, Kenneth Edelin Jr. and Kimberley Freeman; a son, Ramad Speight, from a subsequent relationship with Alonzo Speight; eight grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Cover photo: Remembering Ramona Edelin, The Educator Turned Activist Who Popularized The Term ‘African American’ / Photo credit: The Seattle Medium

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