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University hosts second DeMond Day

Yusuf Muhammad Jr. ’99, M ’01, a transformational public high school principal in Atlanta, Georgia, will deliver the keynote speech Thursday, Feb. 1, at SUNY Cortland’s second annual Abraham Lincoln DeMond 1889 Day celebration.

Muhammad is currently the principal at Phoenix Academy, an Atlanta school serving underprivileged students.  

Having spent more than a decade turning around troubled schools, he will discuss the value of devoting one’s life to helping others similar to the life of DeMond, SUNY Cortland’s first African American graduate. Muhammad’s presentation is titled “Embracing a life of service: my journey through SUNY Cortland.”

Abraham Lincoln DeMond 1889 Day was initiated last year to honor DeMond, who graduated from Cortland just 24 years after the Civil War and became a leader in the national fight against the prejudicial policies and segregation that were enforced across much of the United States. The event, which begins at 6 p.m. in the Corey Union Function Room, marks the official start of SUNY Cortland’s 2024 Black History Month event series.

The event is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served, courtesy of the SUNY Cortland Alumni Association. An RSVP to attend DeMond Day is requested.

History records DeMond as a talented, ambitious man whose accomplishments reached far beyond New York state.

A portrait of Abraham Lincoln DeMond 1889

Born in Seneca, N.Y., he attended the Cortland Normal School — the institution later to become SUNY Cortland. After graduation, DeMond studied theology at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., the same church from which Martin Luther King Jr. would one day help launch the civil rights movement. On Jan. 1, 1900, DeMond delivered an oration describing the achievements of African Americans and calling  for them to be given full rights as American citizens. The address was published and distributed to the public.

In 2019, SUNY Cortland’s chapter of the W.E.B. Du Bois Honor Society was named for DeMond. Last year, a group led by Tatum Pittman ’23, then the SGA’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion, created the day in his honor.

“As a student at SUNY Cortland, I didn’t know this information about DeMond,” Muhammad said. “When I learned about it and read a couple pieces about him, I just started thinking about his life in serving four generations ahead. Really, we are standing on the shoulders of a giant who made it possible, who went through a tough journey so that people like me can impact the world. Thinking about his sacrifices, his struggles, there’s something great in him. Yet I find parallels in my own life.”

Muhammad said he’ll discuss how his alma mater set his feet on an early path to a life journey of civic engagement.

“I want to encourage not only embracing a life of service for the community you’re in, but for yourself,” Muhammad said. “I’ve really had to focus on the idea of selfcare with the challenges I’ve been through in my own life.”

Raised in the tough Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y., Muhammad lost his father when he was only 11. Now he is a widower proudly raising four daughters, including the oldest who is an honor student at Howard University.

This year's DeMond Day keynote speaker Yusuf Muhammad '99, M '01 is shown with his high school protégées fourth from the left. In the top image, Ernie Logan '73 gave the keynote speech in 2023 to inaugurate Abraham Lincoln DeMond Day.

Muhammad enrolled at SUNY Cortland through its Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). During his undergraduate years, Muhammad served as president of the Black Student Union, a resident assistant, a member of the EOP Board and a contributing writer for the Dragon Chronicle.

He was recognized with a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Academic Excellence as well as many Cortland undergraduate awards, including the Seth N. Asumah Uhuru Award for Academic Excellence, the Larry Newkirk Memorial Scholarship, the Student Support Committee Leadership Award, the Student Support Committee EOP Best Student Award, the EOP Academic Excellence Award, the James McKee Memorial Award for Outstanding Student in African American Studies, and the Excellence in Student Teaching Award.

Muhammad earned his Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Social Studies and African American Studies. Awarded a SUNY Cortland Underrepresented Graduate Fellowship, he received a Master of Science in SUNY Cortland’s Literacy Education Graduate Program. Accepted into Cornell University’s Africana Studies Graduate Program, he graduated with a Master of Professional Studies in African and African American Studies.

Yusuf Muhammad '99, M '01 stands between two successful high school students.

Returning to Brooklyn, Muhammad entered the teaching profession and taught social studies at the Benjamin Banneker Academy. A graduate of the New Leaders Aspiring Principal’s Program, in 2012 he became a high school principal in the New York City Department of Education. In 2016, Muhammad accepted an offer to lead a low-performing high school in Atlanta. There, he helped create a culture of academic achievement that led to the school’s removal from the Georgia Department of Education’s list of schools needing support.

Additional DeMond Day speakers will include:

  • SUNY Cortland President Erik J. Bitterbaum
  • Lorraine Lopez-Janove, SUNY Cortland’s chief diversity and inclusion officer
  • Tracy McPherson Hudson ’89, M ’93, Ph.D., SUNY Cortland assistant professor of physical education
  • Clay Barnett, the event organizer and Student Government Association director of diversity, equity and inclusion
  • Daniel Walker ’06, SUNY Cortland Alumni Association president

DeMond Day sponsors include the SUNY Cortland Alumni Association, Institutional Equity and Inclusion Office, President’s Office and the Student Government Association.

For more information on DeMond Day, contact Clay Barnett at the SGA. For more information on Black History Month events, contact Charlotte Wade, assistant diversity officer, Institutional Equity and Inclusion Office.