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Poet, professor and activist Gloria House was named the 2019 Kresge Eminent Artist Thursday evening at a ceremony at the Jack White Theater in Detroit's Masonic Temple.

A bit like the Nobel Prize, recipients -- who get $50,000, no strings attached -- generally have no idea they've been nominated. 

"I was stunned," said House, who got the news Jan. 10 in an evening phone call, and confesses she had to look up the award online. "I was just shocked. I felt I’d been scooped up in a wave of grace -- it was that out of the blue." 

Across House's multifaceted career, whether teaching African-American History or publishing four books of poetry, you can trace "a remarkable commitment to freedom of expression and the enrichment of the lives of others," said foundation President and CEO Rip Rapson.

The Eminent Artist award, administered by Kresge Arts in Detroit at the College for Creative Studies, was launched in 2008 with Detroit artist Charles McGee to recognize a lifetime of artistic accomplishment and giving back to the community.  

Previous recipients include writer Bill Harris, jazz legend Marcus Belgrave, modernist designer Ruth Adler Schnee and photographer and activist Leni Sinclair, among others. 

House was born in Tampa, Florida, in 1941. Her stepfather was in the Air Force, so the family moved all over --  Kansas, Massachusetts, Bermuda and England, to name a few -- before settling outside Sacramento, California. 

She graduated from UC-Berkeley at 20, majoring in French and minoring in political science. House dreamed of a State Department career, but instead found herself pulled toward civil-rights activism in the deep South. 

"I ran into a group of students from San Francisco State in the summer of 1965," she said, "who were collecting books and planning on setting up a Freedom School in Selma. And I thought ‘Here’s my chance.’"

While picketing in Selma, House was arrested with other young activists. Released from jail, the group was fired upon almost immediately by a special deputy sheriff.

"Three or four of us just fell on the ground and hoped we wouldn’t be shot," she recalled. "But they’d already shot Jonathan Daniels and Father (Richard) Morrisroe."

Daniels, a student in an Episcopal seminary, died. Morrisroe, a Catholic priest, was injured but survived. 

"They were the only white members who’d been in jail with us," House said. "I always assumed they intended to shoot them." 

After two and half years organizing a Black Independence Party in Alabama, she married a Detroiter, and the two moved back up north.

House taught French and English composition at Cass Tech in Detroit, before getting her doctorate in American Culture and History at the University of Michigan. She landed at Wayne State for 27 years where, among other positions, she taught African-American history and co-chaired the WSU Black Caucus. She retired in 1998.

Shortly thereafter, however, House was invited to found a department of African American and African Studies at UM Dearborn, where she remained until retiring once again in 2014. 

Reaching black youngsters with little concept of their heritage was an experience she still treasures. 

"So many African-American students had no idea that anything preceded them in terms of history or culture," House said. "The reward was seeing them get inspired and exhilarated at learning about their own legacy." 

You might think the newly minted awardee is just sitting around enjoying her retirement, but you would be mistaken. 

"I've continued a lot of community work," House said. "I'm still a volunteer editor with Broadside Lotus Press, and I’m working with a new quarterly called 'Riverwise.' I also work with Detroit Independent Freedom Schools, a movement prompted by the crisis in the city's public schools." 

And what about her poetry? 

"My poetry continues to come as it will," House said, "through all the other things I have going on. The poems just sort of announce themselves." 

mhodges@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy 

(313) 222-6021

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