The legacies of Henry “Hank” Aaron and Billye Suber Aaron, the namesakes of the Cook Center’s Young Scholars program, extend beyond their professional fields to their immense work promoting education and civil rights.
Hank Aaron, the longtime baseball home run champion, first learned to bat with a cross-handed grip, not making the switch until he was in the minor leagues. That he was able to launch a career with such hindered technique was an omen for the greatness he would achieve and the obstacles he would encounter along the way.
Aaron’s sustained excellence for more than two decades and his legendary on-field accomplishments only grow in stature when considering the racist vitriol that he—competing in a lily-white sport during the Civil Rights Era—faced during his career. When Aaron—then playing for Atlanta—hit his 715th home run on April 8, 1974, to break Babe Ruth’s record, commentator Vin Scully called it a “marvelous moment for the country and the world” that Aaron could receive a standing ovation in the Deep South. Of course, such a “marvelous moment” came after months of private death threats and racist letters were mailed to Aaron in the event’s lead-up, a pressure and weight that his performance never betrayed.
In January 2021, Hank passed away at age 86, survived by his wife Billye.
Years before her future husband would set the all-time home run record, Billye Suber Aaron, a Texas native who taught English in Atlanta public schools and a number of universities in the Southeast, broke barriers in the media world. In 1968, she became the first African American woman in the Southeast to co-host a daily, hourlong talk show when she was hired for WSB-TV’s “Today in Georgia.” In 1973, Billye began hosting her eponymous weekly talk show, and she steadily became more involved in the philanthropic world–including a stint as development director for the Atlanta branch of the United Negro College Fund–a trajectory that accelerated following her retirement in 1994.
Together, Billye Suber and Hank were strong advocates of education, supporting Atlanta Technical College and Morehouse School of Medicine in their local community in addition to youth education programs around the country. (Notably, the Billye Suber Aaron Pavilion at Morehouse School of Medicine is named in her honor.) In 1995, the pair started the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, a program that promoted youth development by awarding educational scholarships to low-income children, in order “to enable them to develop their talents and pursue their dreams.”
In 2018, the Cook Center named its Young Scholars Summer Research Institute after the Aarons, in honor of their support for the program and their longtime commitment to higher education. The Aarons travelled to Durham that spring for the formal naming of the program. “I was always taught that the greatest pleasure is to help your fellow man,” said Hank Aaron during that visit. “I’m thrilled to have all these young people stand behind me and provide them with this opportunity.”
Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity Duke University
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