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Angelou again headlines hat-friendly UNCF luncheon

Adorned in a bright red hat that matched her spotted red glasses, Maya Angelou offered advice at a Charlotte luncheon Saturday on topics ranging from courage in the midst of racial prejudice to the importance of choosing the right headwear.

“A hat is a very serious matter,” she told the Observer before the event. “All women are dressed when you put a hat on.”

Angelou, 85, spoke for about a half-hour to a crowd of nearly 600 people at the Uptown Westin for the United Negro College Fund Maya Angelou Women Who Lead Luncheon. The renowned author has sponsored the event for all of its 11 years.

The event was expected to raise more than $180,000 for the UNCF, said Sandra Johnson, who helped organize the event. The UNCF sponsors 39 historically black universities across the country, and its $113 million in scholarships help more than 60,000 students in 900 colleges nationwide, said Stacey McCray, another event coordinator.

Tickets were $150 a plate, and a silent auction was held, with the winning bidder securing dinner with Angelou at her Winston-Salem home. Last year’s winner bid $3,500 for the honor, McCray said.

McCray was among four women honored by Angelou for their volunteerism in the Charlotte area, especially with UNCF. Other winners were Mary Gill, Nancy Webber and Denise Mitchell.

During her talk, Angelou recalled working as a producer many years ago at 20th Century Fox when several co-workers used a racial epithet in her office. She immediately walked out and quit the job. That took a lot of courage, she said. “Courage is the most important of all virtues,” she said. “Without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

Much of the day’s fanfare centered on the colorful, elaborate and sometimes outlandish hats worn by the fundraiser attendees who competed in the luncheon’s “HATitude” contest.

Patricia Williams drove from the Raleigh area to show off her massive carnation-pink hat that she bought from a designer in London for more than $1,000. The hat that won first place could cover a city manhole and had crystals in the shape of pinecones attached to the brim with ostrich feathers flowing out of a pink flower.

While Williams’ hat drew the most oohs and aahs from the crowd, Mitchell was hoping no one would notice the hat she initially wore to the luncheon. “I wore this hat a few years ago,” she said of the straw hat she showed up with. “You can’t repeat. So I bought a green hat to match my outfit.”

Mitchell purchased her hat from the vendors set up outside the luncheon ballroom.

D’erra Cowan wore a tiny straw hat to the affair. She won this year’s $5,000 scholarship given to a local student. Cowan, who graduated from A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis in May, is attending St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh in the fall, where she will study forensic science and hopes to continue competing in track and field.

She’s the first person in her family to attend a four-year school, she said, adding, “So many students feel hopeless at the thought of paying for school. I’m lucky to be a part of this network.”

A little while after Cowan accepted her award, Angelou took the stage. She interacted with the crowd and riffed on famous poems, like William Waring Cuney’s “No Images,” which begins “She does not know her beauty.”

As her speech closed, Angelou marveled at the women in the room: “My heart is beating so fast; I’m so proud of us. It’s amazing to get together, to compliment each other, to have enough courage to support each other.”

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