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by Tara Jefferson with additional reporting by Karen R. Long

“Kent State University, how ya feeling tonight?” actress and LGBT activist Laverne Cox boomed as she took the podium in the university student center. Dressed in a bright green shift dress and black cardigan, Cox thanked an audience that waited hours in line to hear her speak.

With her high-wattage smile and impeccable grooming, Cox is reveling in the spotlight of a breakthrough year. In June, she became the first transgender person to land the cover of Time magazine. A few months later, she broke another barrier: nabbing an Emmy nomination for her role as Sophia Burset on the Netflix comedy ensemble, “Orange is the New Black.”

In November, Cox will accept a woman-of-the year award from Glamour Magazine, alongside U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and actress Mindy Kaling. Her standard talk, “Ain’t I A Woman?” takes its title from abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s speech at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. Cox delivered it again the following night to a boisterous, sold-out audience at Case Western Reserve University, where President Barbara Snyder introduced her. “What a coup for Case Western Reserve,” said Synder, surveying the crowd. “And what a tribute to Laverne Cox.”

And as advertised, Cox’s declaration of womanhood was forceful: “I stand before you a proud African-American transgender woman. I’m an artist, an actress, a sister, a daughter. I am not just one thing. And neither are you.” Once beaten to the ground by junior high kids, Cox has been catcalled and kicked as an adult on the streets of New York. “Hurt people hurt people,” she observed, urging members of marginalized groups not to turn against each other.

Speaking without notes, Cox provided a sober context to her own ascendancy: 78 percent of transgender students experience harassment at school. Seventy-two percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicide victims are people of color. Forty-one percent of transgender individuals attempt suicide at one point in their lives – as young Laverne did in sixth grade.

Born in Mobile, Ala., to a single mother seven minutes before her twin brother, Cox remembers taunts stretching back to her preschool days: sissy and “the f word.” Her mother’s response to the bullying was curt: “What are you doing to make them treat you like that?”

As a grade schooler, Cox begged her working-class mother for dance classes. She finally agreed, with one condition: No ballet classes. “My mother thought it was too ‘gay,'” Cox said with a shrug. “Maybe it was the tights.” Nevertheless, weekly tap and jazz class was transformational.  Finding a passion can be life-saving, she noted.

When Cox went on a third-grade field trip to Six Flags, she bought a decorative, hand-held fan at the gift shop, eager to imitate Scarlett O’Hara. This caused a teacher to phone Cox’s mother with a warning: “Your son is going to end up in on the street in New Orleans wearing a dress if you don’t get him into therapy.”  Cox’s mother did take her to see a therapist, who asked if the child knew the difference between boys and girls. “There is no difference,” Cox answered firmly.

As a boarding student at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, Ala., four hours from her hometown, Cox began to experiment with her appearance, taking weekend trips to thrift stores. She altered the outfits into “Salvation Armani” and wore them with pride, a recollection she accompanied with a saucy flip of her hair.

After two years on scholarship at Indiana University, Cox transferred to Marymount Manhattan College and arrived joyfully in New York. The club scene in the early 1990s gave Cox a community. “I didn’t equate ‘transgender’ with being successful,” she said. “But when I met [these women], all my misconceptions melted away.”

Spooked when strangers would heckle her as a “maaaaaaan” in the street, Cox moved from experiencing this as a failure to a revelation.. “I realized — if someone can tell that I’m trans, that’s okay. That’s beautiful. I accept who I am and that’s something I have to work on every single day.”

In November, Cox wrapped season three of “Orange is the New Black.” She kept mum on the details, except to say that her forthcoming storyline is “freaking juicy.”

Toledo attorney Lafayette Tolliver, 65, estimates there were fewer than 300 black students on the campus of Kent State University during his four years a half-century ago. “We pretty much knew everyone there because that’s how few of us there were,” he said. “We were there, we did it, we graduated. It was quite an exhilarating time.”

Interested parties can glimpse that mid-American black student experience in a new photography exhibit, “Coming of Age at Kent 1967-1971: A Pictorial of Black Student Life.” Culled from Tolliver’s personal collection, these images depict a pivotal time on college campuses, as black students at predominately white institutions began organizing for more resources, taking cues from the burgeoning civil rights movement. It was also a pivotal time at Kent – the National Guard shot four unarmed students May 4, 1970.

When Tolliver arrived in 1967 to study in small-town Kent, the student-founded organization Black United Students was beginning to solidify. “We were looking to have immediate impact,” Tolliver said, ticking off their goals: more black professors, larger black enrollment, more black studies courses. Their overarching goal was to “make it less of an isolated experience for students.”

Young Tolliver worked on staff for the college yearbook and daily newspaper, majoring in photojournalism. “I was the only black student taking pictures of black life. Whenever you saw me, you saw my camera,” he recalled. He graduated in 1971 with his bachelor’s in journalism, but the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shifted his career ambitions to law: “I wanted more leverage.” He attended law school at the University of Toledo and practices mostly discrimination, civil rights, and bankruptcy law.

Earlier this year, Tolliver gave the university thousands of negatives from his collection; archivists selected more than 30 to display at the Uumbaji Gallery in Oscar Ritchie Hall. He hopes it will inspire more people to dig into the archives for similar historical context.

“I just wanted to make sure somebody documented this life that we were going through,” Tolliver said. “I wasn’t just taking pictures for my personal use. I wanted to have a record: we were there and we made an impact.”

The exhibit runs from October 11 through October 23, and is free and open to the public. Tolliver will give remarks at a reception 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. October 18 during Homecoming Weekend at Oscar Ritchie Hall on the KSU campus. To register, visit

Since 2009, an emerging young poet from Northeast Ohio is celebrated along with the winning authors at the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony in Cleveland.

At the 2011 ceremony, Essence Cain, a sixth-grader at Miller South School for Visual and Performing Arts in Akron, Ohio, recited “In the Flower Market,” a poem she and her classmates wrote for “Speak Peace,” an international youth arts program created by Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center. American children in the program wrote poems in response to paintings created by Vietnamese children. The exhibit of paintings and poems is traveling nationally through 2013.

Essence has appeared in plays and musicals at venues throughout Ohio. She was a contributing writer and reader for the animated e-greetings of the 2009 Traveling Stanzas series, Peace Stanzas. She has performed poetry with the Wick Poetry Center Outreach program at the 2011 Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State University and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs national conference in Washington D.C. in 2011.

Visiting the Flower MarketEssence Cain

In the Flower Market

Tiger lilies roar in the cold April rain.
Tulips seek friends with their spray of pollen.

Sunflowers flash in the night,
Illuminating the world like a candle.

Bluebells drip with dew—
They love just being themselves.

Marigolds sing, mango trees ding.
Orchids fly like birds in the wind.

Flowers from all over the world
Spread their colors like peacocks.

Peace is what puts them all together.


Here is a video of Essence reading “In the Flower Market” as part of the “Speak Peace” program.