U alumna, activist playwright dies at 61

by Lily Langerud

Endesha Ida Mae Holland, the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University, died Jan. 25 from complications arising from ataxia, a degenerative neurological condition. She was 61.

Holland, a playwright and professor at the University of Southern California, grew up in Greenwood, Miss., living as a prostitute before becoming involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“She didn’t ever hide the tragedies or the sorrows or what we might consider the transgressive parts of her life,” said Elaine Tyler May, University professor of American studies and Holland’s former adviser. “She was proud of who she was and who she had become; she was proud of the community she came from and the richness of her upbringing.”

May said that while Holland was attending the University, she would come to her classes to talk about the civil rights movement and her past.

“She was just an incredibly positive force and a spellbinding storyteller,” May said.

Holland enrolled in the General College at the University in 1965. She received her Ph.D. in American Studies in 1985 after getting her bachelor’s degree in what was then called black studies and her master’s degree in American studies.

Friends and colleagues note her lifelong devotion to education. Habibi Minnie Wilson, Holland’s theatrical business manager and close friend, remembers reading a newspaper article about Holland’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, “From the Mississippi Delta,” while it was playing in Detroit.

“I decided to write her and send her some of my poetry and she called about a month later,” Wilson said.

Holland encouraged Wilson, who now holds a Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo, to go back to school.

“She thought her purpose was to help people because people had helped her,” Wilson said. “She did that all her life.”

After teaching as an associate professor in the women’s studies program of the American studies department in Buffalo, Holland joined the University of Southern California as a playwright-in-residence in 1993, where she met another close friend and colleague, Robert R. Scales.

Both Holland and Scales had received their Ph.D.s from the University but at different times. Scales, former dean of the University of Southern California’s School of Theatre, said his concern for Holland’s health prompted him to urge her to retire, but her independent spirit remained even after she moved to an assisted living program.

“I think she’s a wonderful inspiration to any young person who really wants to make something out of their life,” Scales said. “She had a lot of stuff against her, but I never saw her when she was not enjoying something.”

Holland’s work is available through the University’s Givens Collection of African American Literature in Andersen Library.

She is survived by her son, Cedric; granddaughter, Kashka; sister, Jean Beasley; and brother, Charlie Nellums.