Taheerah R. Muhammad College Scholarship
Taheerah R. Muhammad Educational Excellence Scholarship…
“Education’s not for the lazy—you gotta’ work hard to be truly educated…and even harder to be smart.”―Taheerah Rasheedah Muhammad
The Taheerah R. Muhammad Educational Excellence Scholarship is established in honor of Taheerah Rasheedah Muhammad, retired teacher and health care worker, entrepreneur, community leader, mother of seven, and an American Muslim Pioneer. The Scholarship is awarded yearly to a graduating college bound high school senior, current undergraduate or graduate student in any major who demonstrates a commitment to community service and academic achievement.
In the year 1885 in Blackville, South Carolina, a male child named Garvin was born a free person, just 22 years after the Emancipation Proclamation; and a baby girl named Essie was born in 1890. They would one day marry and have three sons, James, John and Isaac, and a fourth child, a girl named Tessie born in 1908.
Like her mother, Tessie would mature into a strong religious woman, with spiritual roots in the Holiness Church. Christianity was for her as it was for many slave descendants, more a default practice of faith than true religious liberty…a freedom absent for generations of slaves denied the right to literacy and knowing only Christianity as a result of servitude and enculturation by the majority Christian population of slave masters. But little did Tessie know that one day among her descendants, there would be children from two spiritual houses of Abraham (AS).
Tessie married William, who was born in the early 1900’s, and they had 5 children including a child named Deloris Elizabeth. As was the standard practice of the day, most African Americans selected biblical names for their children and retained the surnames of their former slave owners. Deloris meant one who knew sorrow from the Latin La Virgen María de los Dolores, “Virgin Mary of Sorrows” and Elizabeth from the Hebrew Elisheba, meaning oath of God.
Deloris (later Taheerah) was born in the mid 1930s, on a Tuesday in Trenton, New Jersey. Her family was poor and had made a living picking cotton, growing crops and tending animals in the Carolinas. She was born after her family moved north during the decades-long migration of black families fleeing the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. Like many, her family was escaping disfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, and a fear of lynching, for they had to protect three sons, James (Mancy), John and Isaac, and educate five total, including the eldest Helen. From 1915 to 1970, an exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America then and now and it changed the future for Taheerah and her family.
During her childhood, the country faced a bleak period marked by the Great Depression with its mass bank failures, millions unemployed, and sustained losses of productivity and wealth for over a decade. The country still had a 15% unemployment rate by 1940 and soon a war would follow.
For African Americans, the circumstances were more dire, for depression was not a temporary circumstance, but a way of life, as Jim Crow meted out another 100 years of additional physical and mental cruelty upon African Americans following the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment to the Constitution that legally freed all blacks from chattel slavery. And while freedom, whatever it meant then was a beginning victory to celebrate, it would take a few more generations before true freedom, personal security, and full citizenship rights would be enjoyed by Taheerah and millions of other African descendants of slaves whose ancestors were brought to the shores of Europe, North and South America, the West Indies, Brazil and the Caribbean.
Trenton figured prominently in both World Wars as a major industrial supplier and seaport on the Atlantic ocean, but the Depression slowed the war boom and growth and would eventually help set the stage for several race riots just three decades later. Despite Taheerah’s family’s migration north in hopes of jobs, voter rights, better educational opportunities, and overall improved living conditions, their safety in Trenton in the thirties could be every bit as precarious as in any Dixiecrat basin—segregation made it dangerous for a so-called colored person or negro to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Ku Klux Klan had a history in New Jersey since the early part of the 1920s including in Trenton and further south toward Camden. The state, while under pressure of NAACP lawsuits, finally and reluctantly obeyed its own laws to desegregate its schools in the thirties, but retained criminal punishments for interracial relationships.
Blacks in Trenton, like in other urban areas, were more adversely affected economically by the Depression than white America, due to housing and employment discrimination. In fact, the face of northern racism revealed itself predominately in terms of economic denial, and the phrase “last hired, first fired” might have best described the North’s economic relationship with its African American minorities, whereas in the South, you weren’t likely to get the job at all. That environment bred hostility and a sense of isolation, such that for many, even the Church would not offer a haven or solution, for the Church had in most cases sanctioned institutional racism, with many evangelicals and of course the imagery of the Heavenly hosts appearing nothing like the inhabitants of America’s ghettos.
Taheerah was the second youngest child, and youngest daughter. At the tender age of five, she lost her beloved father William to tuberculosis. It was a devastating blow, but grandmother Essie and Tessie were there to help her and her sister and brothers pick up the pieces and continue on.
While she was spared personally the most naked of racism by being raised in the north, young Taheerah was still very much aware of what it meant to be black in America. Like her grandmother and mother, she was raised in a strict Christian Holiness tradition. While she attended first her grandmother’s Holy Cross Church of God in Christ and later her mother’s Church of the First Born of the Living God, the young girl had questions. Each time she was told, “Don’t question G-d.” She always believed in G-d, but there was just too much dissonance between the Christian message she heard on Sunday and the Christian behavior toward blacks on Monday.
Taheerah was growing up to be a beautiful young lady, shy and cultured with musical talents, including a penchant for the piano and a pretty good gospel singing voice though she would not pursue them as a career. Even so, music and song, especially spirituals remained a part of her even into a new spiritual birth. Most of her days were spent going to school and church and playing with older sister Helen and sometimes her brothers. While Taheerah was close to her brothers, she was closest to her eldest sister who affectionately referred to her as Lahla. Helen was a devout Christian too, Taheerah’s role model and best friend—between them never a word of discord.
As a young adult, Taheerah worked briefly at the Campbell Soup canning factory, but her life as a young girl with a high school diploma from Trenton Central High was about to change dramatically and forever. Her grandmother knew several members of another Carolina family who also settled in Trenton. Taheerah was introduced to her future husband, John (later Yahya) by his paternal uncle Emanuel (later Emanuel Muhammad), who was a friend of her family. Taheerah’s grandmother and mother both watched over her during her courtship until John one day proposed to the 18 year old and she said yes. By 1954, she was married, going straight from her mother’s home to her husband’s.
Taheerah made a home for the new couple as her husband worked in factories to support the family, but it was difficult because of layoffs targeted first at black workers. Then incidents that begin three years earlier and a world away would affect her and her family, as the young bride was soon raising a child while her husband was drafted into the U.S. Army; she worried about him stationed in Germany, not only for his safety as an American GI, but about his safety and personal struggles as an African American soldier; she couldn’t be there to fight beside him, but she could be the best wife and mom caring for the family and preparing a comfortable home for his return.
By the late fifties, Taheerah had given birth to three more children and her growing family would need to carve out their place in the American dream, as hopes for a new black middle class began to emerge. The reality of layoffs and economic struggles continued until in 1961 a powerful new movement and philosophy would shape her faith and vision for a new future and like her husband earlier, she would soon be wearing a uniform and responding to her own call of duty.
As a wife and mother of four, Taheerah had her hands full making a house a home. While not the principal breadwinner, someone still has to buy the ingredients, mix, bake, and serve the bread and this she did with love for her family. Every one of her children was given her best, from extra academic lessons at home to canning fresh fruits, vegetables and jams and pureeing for the little ones, because she didn’t trust store-bought baby food. She was like a professional chef in her kitchen, while she had to budget, shop, clean the house, mend clothes, help with home work, resolve disputes, treat a cut or scrape, sooth a crying child, or help keep the discipline and more. She reared her children with respect for their father and taught respect for authority in general. She was the consummate wife and mother, friend and teacher.
It was during the period of the early-to-mid 60s that she along with her husband began laying the groundwork for their family to enter a growing black middle class. Four of her seven children were born during the civil rights era and her last two were born after affirmative action. By the mid 1960s, Taheerah and her family’s progress into the middle class was secure, and due less to the influences of the civil rights movement, than to the influences of a movement called the Nation of Islam; and it was through its message that she would support her husband as a cleric, successful entrepreneur, business and community leader and become a leader in her own right.
The spiritual stirrings in her soul and questions from her youth remained since leaving her mother and grandmother’s guarding influences. In 1961, an invitation would become a defining moment, even an awakening—she was invited to hear about a man called Elijah Muhammad and a movement called the Nation of Islam. One day, her brother-in-law shared that he had seen “a flag we could call our own.” And she was invited to a meeting that from henceforth would change her life.
Taheerah was 26 years old when she joined the Nation of Islam; its message of ethnic pride, do for self, and moral integrity resonated with her even if she was a bit uncomfortable with some of its more controversial positions. Before long, she and her husband, sister and mother in-law and eventually her great uncle in law Emanuel, all heard the message and became members. Together their families formed a major nucleus of what would become the first Muslim Community in Trenton.
Taheerah in addition to being a full time mother and wife now contributed to helping build a fledgling Muslim community. She prepared meals, raised funds, and taught weekend school for the children. Soon after, she was teaching adult classes in sewing, cooking, budgeting and etiquette. For more than two years, she ensured her home was prepared for weekly religious meetings even before services in a mosque were possible; and she and her family would help purchase the first mosque in Trenton. She and her husband placed six of their children in the Nation’s private school. Later she volunteered to teach in private school where she was blessed to have her own children among her students.
The Nation suited Taheerah with its strict discipline and regimen as she rose through its ranks to become a lieutenant. She had already learned discipline from her conservative upbringing. Both her grandmother and mother had always given her good advice on being responsible and decent. Inside the Nation she would find a strict code of moral conduct: no smoking, drinking or any other intoxicants, no gambling or vices of any kind, and a healthy respect for family life. The Nation placed a significant focus on diet and natural health, and imposed a strict Islamic prohibition on pork that also helped address factors contributing to chronic diseases in the African American community like high blood pressure and diabetes. It was a conservative lifestyle by all measure socially and economically, as monies previously wasted on idle sport and play or entertainment were invested back into the community.
The Nation of Islam structured a powerful proscription that made it a sort of miracle worker even for those from the toughest circumstances caught up in a spiral of failure resulting from bad habits, poor morals and irresponsible living. The Nation’s message began to clean up the wino, drug addict, prostitute and pimp, and common criminal alike—it would have powerful effects on the street as it began to take hold inside the prison system as more and more African Americans heard its message. With iconic leaders like Malcolm and Ali, despair was replaced with hope and the Nation’s message of self-help provided the environment for thousands to reform their lives without government aid or programs.
By the early 70’s, Taheerah was a wife and mother of seven, a business woman working for the dignity of family-owned enterprise, and a school teacher. Along with her husband, Taheerah became fully self-employed as one of the earliest Muslim business leaders in the city helping operate the family’s grocery, restaurants, clothing and fish market, plus mobile sales routes that began with Muhammad Speaks newspapers. While sales of the Nation’s paper was primarily a male role, she did her part by mentioning the publication to family and friends. In her own right, she would be one of the foot soldiers around the nation to help make Muhammad Speaks the largest African American owned publication and Elijah Muhammad “the most powerful black man in America.” And the famous bean pie introduced by the Nation, she helped bake commercially, providing thousands of the treats weekly under a contract to prisons throughout the Central New Jersey Metropolis. Later, she would help operate the family’s taxi operations in Camden, New Jersey and Newberry, South Carolina. The Muhammad family was providing employment for their immediate and extended family as well as members of the larger Muslim and non-Muslim Communities. The family’s business successes were legendary and many today give Taheerah and her family the credit for pursuing their own entrepreneurial dreams.
The year 1975 was a period of great transition for Taheerah and her family as the Nation lost its leader of nearly forty years. Without faltering, she like the majority of Muslims then, became a supporter of the leadership of Imam Wallace Deen Mohammed, the son of Elijah Muhammad, and the one chosen to reform the Community. Taheerah began her transition to true Islam, renouncing the Nation’s earlier religious dogma, including its teaching on the origin and superiority or inferiority of the races. Finally, the longing in her soul was fulfilled as the purity of the faith lifted the burdens of racial inferiority or superiority. She understood now that no man could be a god, but only a servant of the One True Creator. Her new surname became Muhammad, meaning one worthy of praise, and the name of the Prophet of Islam (prayers and peace be upon him). Her first name became Taheerah meaning chaste and pure and Rasheedah, one who is rightly guided. Her name would reflect not only a new spiritual legacy as a Muslim believing in the One G-d unseen, the G-d of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them), but also a freedom from the past in that she would no longer carry the last name of a family who at one time owned hers or her husband’s ancestors.
She rededicated herself to a new mission to remake the world following her community’s transition. After reformation of the Nation to true Islam, she began her study of the religion in earnest, including studying the example life of Muhammed the Prophet (pbuh). She sacrificed yet again with a renewed devotion to civic engagement, supporting her local AMMCOP chapter that was part of a national faith-based collective buying program to help economically empower disadvantaged families; and she worked locally in the national campaign to remove racial images portraying the Divine (CRAID), while supporting Muslim communities in Trenton and Camden, New Jersey; Columbia, South Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida and Atlanta, Georgia.
Taheerah demonstrates the importance of self-improvement and life-long learning. Just prior to retiring, she returned to school for medical and computer training. She refused to tolerate mediocrity in herself and in any of her students she taught over the years and even today remains an advocate for higher education, chiding the youth to “seek knowledge always.” Although she never earned a degree herself, she was determined to ensure her children took advantage of greater opportunities. There are now undergraduate and graduate degrees among her children, and another generation in her family has stepped forth to carry on the task of continuing to build the community in which she achieved distinction as an American Muslim pioneer.
She was blessed in 2005 to fulfill Islam’s fifth and final pillar with her pilgrimage to the sacred precincts of Mecca joining some 3 million fellow Muslims honoring the way of Prophet Abraham (AS) and the life example of Muhammad the Prophet (pbuh). Upon her lips would be the words every pilgrim on hajj proclaims…Here I am at Thy service O Lord, here I am. Here I am at Thy service. You have no partners. For You Alone is the praise and all bounty and for You Alone is the Sovereignty, You have no partners.
The last surviving member of her family and in retirement now, Taheerah who volunteered well into her seventies with the Mature Youth of Atlanta Masjid, remains passionate about her religious community and its future, and the country in general. While the inconveniences of age sometimes interfere, she travels when she can to visit with her children, grands and great-grands. Honored inside and outside her faith-based community, her home state issued a proclamation naming her an Outstanding Georgia Citizen. She is a two-time recipient of the Southern Section American Muslim Pioneers, Workers and Leadership Award for outstanding service to the believers; honored as a Living Legend by the Jacksonville Masjid of Al-Islam; honored as a pioneer by Atlanta institutions including Masjid Al Mu’minun and Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, and she is an honorary senior in Atlanta Masjid’s Mature Youth Group, and a pioneer mentioned in the book Genesis of New American Leadership: Building the Community Life.
On her 80th birthday, believers traveled from around the country to honor her contributions at a special celebration, and to witness honors and proclamations from Honorable Barack Hussein & First Lady Michelle Obama, U.S. Congressional leaders, Georgia’s Governor and Senators, Mayors from the cities of Trenton and Camden New Jersey; Newberry and Columbia, South Carolina; Atlanta City Council and from Islamic Institutions in New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
The Taheerah R. Muhammad Educational Excellence Scholarship seeks to inspire a new generation of dedicated community leaders committed to building an intelligentsia for succeeding generations…to help remake the world.
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