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Actress, Author Denise Nicholas Visits SHSJC
by Jessica Moore, Jasmine Williams

Award-winning author and actress Denise Nicholas was welcomed by a full house on Wed., Jan. 19 at Caldwell Café, an event hosted by Hampton University’s Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications. Nicholas discussed her writing and acting career, in addition to her participation in the civil rights movement.

For Nicholas, getting involved in the civil rights movement had been a long-time dream. Despite disapproval from her family, she dropped out of college at the University of Michigan to join the efforts in the South. To contribute, she joined a theater group that performed for rural blacks at various voter registration drives across the South. Nicholas and the group experienced overwhelming adversity throughout their travels.

“Our theatre was harassed,” she said. “I even had a gun put to my head.”

Later establishing a career in professional acting, Nicholas paved the way for other black women across the platforms of theater, television and the big screen. Best known for her roles as Harriet DeLong on the television drama “In the Heat of the Night” and as Liz McIntyre on the groundbreaking 1970s series “Room 222,” Nicholas discussed her desire for “out-of-the-box” roles.

“I never wanted to be a glamour girl,” admitted Nicholas. “I tried to get characters that were older than I was … and even marred in some way or another.”

Nicholas said that if she could play any character, it would be the role of Celeste Tyree – the protagonist in her debut novel, “Freshwater Road”: a coming-of-age story set in the heat of the civil rights movement. The award-winning novel is based on Nicholas’ personal experiences.

“The book put me back in touch with myself,” Nicholas said. “When I started writing, experiences and memories flood back as if I was experiencing them again. It was right at my fingertips the whole time.”

Overall, Nicholas said that writing has been the highlight of her career. Her newly released “Hands on the Freedom Plow, Personal Accounts of Women in the SNCC” offers a testimonial of her time with the Free Southern Theater in the South during the most violent times of the civil rights movement. Nicholas revealed that she is currently working on a third manuscript.

Despite her achievements, Nicholas said that black actors and writers have much farther to go in the industry. In a closing round of questions posed by the students, Nicholas offered wise words of encouragement.

“Keep learning,” she said. “Take advantage of the relationships you establish here and bond with one another. Most importantly, never let anything break your spirit.”