Obituary: Alice Grant, pioneering mentor to authors

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 17, 2011 - 7:40 PM

Alice Grant

Alice May Grant, an educator in African and African-American studies who taught several years at the University of Minnesota, died Dec. 3 at Abbott-Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. She was 88, and had lived in Richfield.

Grant was born and raised in Pittsburgh, said her son, David Grant of Minneapolis. As a child, she loved books and music and displayed "a keen intelligence," he said.

She earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh in 1946 and a master's degree in literature there in 1953.

From 1952 to 1962, Grant taught creative writing and English literature at Howard University in Washington, D.C. "She helped talented people from tough circumstances believe in themselves," including Claude Brown, who wrote "Manchild in the Promised Land," David said.

At Howard, she shared an office with young writer Toni Morrison. "I have a copy of Toni's original typewritten short story 'The Bluest Eye,' which she gave to my mom," David said. "My mom's notes on it say it was wonderful ... and suggest that it be turned into a novel."

"The Bluest Eye" did become Morrison's first novel. In her second, "Sula," the title character was named using a play on Alice's name, "all us" backwards, David said.

Grant was also a pioneer in the new field of teaching English as a second language, authoring the first ESL textbook with Morrison and colleague Lettie Austin.

The 1960s were an intense time for American blacks, as civil rights and cultural pride rose. Interest in Africa also was strong, and Grant, by then the divorced mother of three, traveled to Nigeria, Tanzania and other countries. Because of her expertise on Africa, she became part of the first class of instructors for Peace Corps volunteers.

Next, she taught English and creative writing at Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa., also directing its center for refugees from Africa, mentoring future leaders of Nigeria, Angola, Ghana and Mozambique, her son said.

"A lot of amazing people passed through our house," David said. One was Ghanian Ayi Kwei Armah, who in 1968 wrote "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born."

In 1969, Grant arrived at the University of Minnesota, where she was pivotal in a teacher-training program and taught Swahili, one of several languages she was fluent in.

Darlene Kunze of St. Paul, who worked with Grant at the U as a graduate assistant on training for minority teachers, said she was "wonderful and knowledgeable," deeply engaged with those she worked with and interested in everything they had to say.

In 1972, Grant moved to Jacksonville, Fla., for her final teaching job at what is now Florida State College. During that time, she learned Haitian Creole and made many trips to Haiti to do relief work.

In 1990, she retired and moved back to Minnesota.

"My mother was extremely interested in people's stories," David said. "She was a quiet, unassuming person, but if you engaged her in conversation you'd quickly become awed by her, and by how intently she listened to you."

In addition to David, she is survived by sons Joel and Samuel of Minneapolis; a brother, Joel Wanzer of New York City; three grandchildren and a foster grandchild, and two great-grandchildren. Services have been held.

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290

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