By Stacy M. Brown
Dr. Helen Chavis Othow, the beloved author, college professor and sister of National Newspaper Publishers Association President and CEO Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., died at the age of 89 on January 1, 2022 in Oxford, North Carolina.
A lover of reading, writing, and history, Dr. Othow received her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and majored in Black studies and African, African American, and Caribbean literature.
She also studied Elizabethan and Medieval literature, and her dissertation, “The New Decorum: Moral Perspectives of Black Literature,” was published in the Library of Congress.
Dr. Othow presented “Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali by D.T. Niane,” that illustrated her appreciation and knowledge of African culture.
She expressed a desire to impart knowledge to all citizens of the world.
“My sister was also a freedom fighter,” Dr. Chavis remarked.
“The Chavis family has been fighting for freedom, justice, and equality for 250 years in America and in Africa.”
Born April 21, 1932, in Oxford, North Carolina, Dr. Othow was the daughter of Benjamin Franklin Chavis, Sr; a Prince Hall mason and superintendent of African American child-care institutions, and Elisabeth R. Chavis, a writer and public school teacher for 65 years.
A municipal park in Raleigh, North Carolina, bears the name of her ancestor educator, John Chavis (1763-1838).
The beloved scholar, Dr. Othow, also received a bachelor’s degree from St. Augustine’s College, and she earned her master’s at North Carolina Central University.
She eventually became head of the English Department at St. Augustine’s College.
She was also widely acclaimed and respected as a conscientious scholar dedicated to enhancing excellence in the literary and other arts. Dr Othow also taught at the following Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs): Howard University, Johnson C. Smith University, North Carolina Central University, Hampton University, and Jackson State University.
Dr. Othow pushed for the understanding of African American history, including educating her students and others about John Chavis, who fought in the Revolutionary War and became an educator who taught some of North Carolina’s most influential leaders.
Dr. Othow is survived by her daughter, Ajulonyodier Elisabeth Othow, her brother, Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., and her sisters, Dr. La Rhoda Francine Chavis, MD and Carol Faye Paton, and a host of other relatives.
Funeral services for Dr. Othow are scheduled for 1 p.m. EST., Saturday, January 8 at the Chavis Family Cemetery in Oxford, North Carolina.
Following is the official obituary Dr. Helen Chavis Othow:
Dr. Helen Chavis Othow
April 21, 1932 – January 1, 2022
Dr. Helen Chavis Othow was born to the late Benjamin Franklin Chavis, Sr. and Mrs. Elisabeth Ridley Chavis on April 21, 1932. She departed this life on January 1, 2022. She was the second of four children: her sisters, the late Mrs. June Chavis Davenport and Dr. LaRhoda Francine Chavis and her brother, The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Franklin Chavis, Jr.
Growth and Service
She was reared in a loving home and attended St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, N.C. since childhood, where she was a member of the Choir, the Altar Guild, and the Vestry. She attended the public schools of Oxford, Angier B. Duke Elementary School and was graduated from Mary Potter High School in 1948.
As a lifetime career teacher, she wanted her church to become more involved with the schools and youth in Oxford to help students achieve at a higher level. In February 2010, she sponsored through the Granville Arts Council an Artists-in-the-Schools program at Northern Granville Middle School and Mary Potter Middle School. In 2009 she coordinated the Centennial Celebration of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church. Over the years she also coordinated several summer enrichment programs for underserved students at St. Cyprian’s.
She attended St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, attaining the B.A. Degree in English and French in 1952; the M.A. Degree in English from North Carolina College in 1958; and the Ph.D. Degree in English from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin in 1971. It was there that she met her late husband, Paul Anade Othow from Sudan in East Africa, while they attended the University of Wisconsin. They were married in Gambela, Ethiopia in 1971. To this union was born her beautiful daughter, Ajulonyodier Elisabeth Othow in 1973. The three members of the family toured East Africa, and in the 1980’s, Helen and Anade taught at the University of Juba in the southern region of Sudan. Through their efforts the couple brought over 30 refugees to reside in the United States, from Sudan; Ethiopia; Sierra Leone, West Africa; and the Dominican Republic.
Dr. Othow was Chairperson of the Division of Humanities at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, from 1974 to 1979 and Chairperson of the English Department at St. Augustine’s College from 1984 to 1996, where she directed the Bush-Hewlett Writing Across the Curriculum program. As a Professor of English, she received tenure from St. Augustine’s College in 1999. In addition to teaching at St. Augustine’s College, she has taught English at several colleges and universities throughout the United States: North Carolina Central University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Wisconsin, Meredith College, North Carolina State University, and Howard University in Washington, D.C. After her retirement in 2001, she taught online at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia; Louisburg College in Louisburg, North Carolina; and Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.
She received numerous awards for her scholarly endeavors and contributions to society. Her biography appears in Twentieth Century Writers, 2005; Who’s Who Among African Americans, 2000; Certificate of Completion, the Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware, 2001; Vermont Studio Center Fellowship for Writers in Johnson, Vermont; St. Augustine’s College Outstanding Faculty Plaque and Trophy; United Negro College Fund Faculty Research Grant; Plaque for Scholarly Achievement, Presented by the North Carolina Central University Faculty Senate in 2007; and numerous National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Grants for College Teachers.
She is the author of John Chavis: African American Patriot, Preacher, Teacher, and Mentor 1763-1838, published by McFarland Publishers in 2001; a novel, Flight to Gambela; a book of poems, Lift High the Ramparts; and A History of the Chavis, Ridley, and Satterwhite Families of Oxford, North Carolina, published by the Library of Congress. Her dissertation The New Decorum: Moral Perspectives of Black Literature, the University of Wisconsin, 1972, is also published by the Library of Congress.
Through God’s help she also coordinated the installment of the Historic Highway Marker for Dr. G.C. Shaw and Mary Potter Academy in Oxford. She was the Founder and President of The John Chavis Historical Society and assisted in the unveiling and rededication of the new Historic Highway Marker for John Chavis in Raleigh, N.C. on July 11, 2010. She is also responsible for the installation of a permanent sign at the likely gravesite of John Chavis located on the former Willie P. Mangum plantation, having found it after extensive research, along with that of numerous other unmarked graves for enslaved people in Rougemont, North Carolina.
She was a member of the Nature Lovers Garden Club; Les Gemmes, Inc.; Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated; The College Language Association; The Association for the Study of African American Life and History; The Langston Hughes Society; The Zora Neale Hurston Society; The Anna J. Cooper Society; The North Carolina Writers Network; The Mid-Atlantic Writers Association; The National Council of Teachers of English; The Toni Morrison Society; The Oxford Women’s Club; The National Mary Potter Alumni Association; and The John Chavis Historical Society. Through the John Chavis Historical Society, she coordinated Oxford’s First Annual International Festival, which in its fifth year is bigger and better and is now held in beautiful downtown Oxford.
She leaves to celebrate her life, her brother, Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. (Martha); her sister, Dr. LaRhoda Francine Chavis; her daughter, Mrs. Ajulo Othow Norman (Collis) and grandson, Collis Raymon Norman Jr.; an adopted sister, Carol Faye Payton of Houston, Texas; four step-granddaughters, Abigail Norman, Mercedes Norman, Jasmine Norman and Princess Norman; five nieces: Marva Elisabeth Davenport, Ana Elisabeth Chavis, Paula Chavis Jones, Nicole (Nikki) Bullock, and Renita Peace Timberlake; four nephews, Benjamin Franklin Chavis, III, Franklin Chavis, Reginald Louis Chavis, and John Mandela Chavis; great nieces and nephews, and a host of other relatives and friends.
Contributions may be made in care of the John Chavis Historical Society to the Dr. Helen Chavis Othow Scholarship Fund to St. Augustine’s College and to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin.