A former Panther paid for her degree. Now she’s using it to teach history – but with Twitter and lively (sometimes NSFW) commentary

One tweet, on Sept. 11, 2016, and Charlotte native Elexus Jionde had gone viral.

She followed it, over the next hour and a half, with a 48-tweet thread stuffed with facts, photos and her own analysis of history, focusing on what she called “other American atrocities we shouldn’t be forgetting about anytime soon”: the KKK and “Mammy” stereotypes, Disney and Jim Crow, desegregation and the Freedom Summer. (The most popular, with 24,000 retweets, included a photo of Charlotte’s Dorothy Counts integrating Harding High in 1957.)

She wrapped up with: “So to end this thread, never forget 9/11. For sure. But don’t forget the rest of this s*** either. Please.”

The response came quickly: 50,000 retweets of the first post within 24 hours, online harassment (including death threats), and national headlines from Buzzfeed and a New York Times affiliate.

To date, the series has more than 415,000 retweets, and has generated hundreds of comments, ranging from “I learned more about Black history from @Lexual__ than I did in all 4 years of high school” to “I understand slavery was horrible and extensive but do you think that means you can be racist in a post” to “Crying reading this thread.”

This is exactly what the 23-year-old wants to do with the Ohio State history degree she completed last August.

And that’s just fine by the guy who paid for that degree – former Carolina Panther star Steve Smith Sr.

What’s her goal?

One day this spring, Jionde stood in the Levine Museum of the New South and plunged her hand into a bale of raw cotton. She paused, remembering what it felt like to do exactly this, exactly here, on a school field trip half her life ago.

She came to the museum’s “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers” exhibition because it seemed the right place to Jionde to talk about her transformation – from Garinger High student holding down three jobs to Ohio State history grad developing her own brand, Intelexual Media, on Twitter, a website, Instagram and YouTube.

Jionde styles herself “the unconventional history teacher” and offers more than 50,000 Twitter followers – plus those who view her “Two Minute History” video dispatches – lessons on race, feminism and American history that they didn’t get in school. She’s self-published one book, “The A-Z Guide to Black Oppression,” and says a second one, “The History of Black Sexuality,” is in the works.

Her style is raw. Her posts contain both straight fact and strong opinion. And her sexuality is ingrained in her message, often in images and threads that are risque. They demonstrate, she says, that sexuality and intelligence can coexist in a public persona.

The reactions they can create – like the response to her 2016 tweetstorm – make her more resolute, she says: What this country needs is more history lessons.

‘She always had dreams’

Jionde grew up attending magnet schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system. When transportation issues in tenth grade forced a switch to her neighborhood high school, she says, she was shocked.

“The first day I showed up at Garinger, there were helicopters and tons of kids and security and tons of fights,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘OK, I need to stand out differently.’ 

She did.

She started doing the afternoon announcements and became known for a rapid-delivery, professional-but-peppy approach. She played goalie on the school’s varsity soccer team and worked three part-time jobs to help with family finances. She was voted homecoming queen.

“Everybody at Garinger knew Elexus,” says James Ford, who taught history there during Jionde’s years, and went on to become North Carolina’s 2014 Teacher of the Year.

“She was very boisterous and bubbly. I would always greet her in the hallway and make her give me a firm handshake and look me in the eye,” Ford says, although he never had her in his class. “She always had dreams. She always talked about going to Ohio State. She’s one of those success stories you point to and you say, ‘See? It can be done.’ 

In the fall of her senior year, The Observer published a story about Jionde pursuing her dreams. (She’s Elexus White in that story; she says she dropped the surname after high school because she wasn’t very connected to her father, and began using her middle name instead.)

Then-Panther wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. says he read the story one Sunday morning before a home game, and decided he had to help.

A Panther investment

Smith contacted the school, and several weeks later met her in the office of her guidance counselor with the news that he wanted to give her a full college scholarship.

“I cried,” Jionde recalls. “He told me he was inspired by my story and he wanted to pay (for) me to go to college.” She still remembers the date: Feb. 27, 2012.

She was accepted to Ohio State the next day, and soon learned that she was also given a $20,000 scholarship through the Broad Prize for Urban Education.

To Smith, who with wife Angie has a charitable family foundation, Jionde wasn’t just a name on a list of their charity recipients, he says. Smith and Jionde never lost touch and still talk regularly – at least once a month, he says.

“I don’t really see Elexus as all these other people see her. I see her as a little sister,” Smith says. “I invested in her. Not in Ohio State, not in any of that stuff. I invested in her. We stay connected more on a personal level.”

And how does he feel about how Jionde is using that history degree he helped finance?

“I think that’s what paying it forward is.

“It’s not about taking and how much can you get for yourself. It’s about your life and (taking advantage of) all the resources and applying them and then paying it forward to someone else.”

Says Jionde: “I’m trying to give my $40,000-a-year education to people. I just want to be a middle man between expensive higher education and everybody else.”

From parties to the library

Jionde began blogging in her freshman year at Ohio State, first about pop culture, feminism and more, then zeroing in on celebrities and parties.

She was also zeroing in on history classes – and loving every minute of them. She switched majors from journalism to history and found that her tastes outside the classroom, too, were changing.

“The summer before my senior year I was at a penthouse party in Brooklyn, surrounded by rappers and models, and I was completely bored out of my mind,” she recalls. “I loved social media and I knew my passion was history and educating people and learning.”

She holed up in the university libraries on weekends and worked on researching and writing.

After graduating last August, she moved to New York – living there had been a life goal, she says – and took a full-time job at a gym. But she kept working on writing, then on her fledgling media company and its website, Twitter and Facebook accounts, focusing on black history.

September brought the 9/11 tweet – and brought her back into James Ford’s world.

Her tweets had begun to pop up on Ford’s friends’ Twitter feeds. He didn’t realize who @Lexual__ was. But he was reading her.

“I was like, ‘Whoever this is, is absolutely running a clinic on unflattering American history.’ 

‘Some people don’t like peaches’

When he figured it out, he reached out to her.

“I said, ‘When did you come into all this knowledge?’ ” says Ford. “She was always opinionated and boisterous, but the intellect with which she was communicating those arguments was light-years ahead of many adults I know.

“I said, ‘You make me very proud right now.’ 

The day she visited the Levine, Jionde also was monitoring a post titled “Racist White Women: An American Legacy.” In less than a day, according to her site, it had been viewed more than 20,000 times. (That grew to more than 100,000 by the time this story published.)

The post, like many of Jionde’s, offers opinion and some generalizations, along with facts and cultural context. This one mixes a personal recollection – a feud with a white roommate that led to a restraining order and Jionde’s near-expulsion from school – with spoilers from the movie “Get Out” and her interpretation of how “Polite But Still Racist Southern Belles” and “Pretty Conduits” have used their privilege to perpetuate racism in various forms throughout American history.

In January, one of her posts blew up the Twitter-verse again: She posted a video calling conservative commentator Tomi Lahren “an angry-white b****” and “a pretty, blonde racist who other bigots can look to for rhetoric.”

Jionde knows her approach won’t be universally liked. She is fine with that. (Her Facebook bio reads: “i’m a juicy peach but some people don’t like peaches.”)

Ford, who has himself been criticized for frank talk about race, says about Jionde’s approach: “It’s direct, it’s well-researched and it’s well-founded. There’s not a lot of candy coating.

“Elexus is a grown woman now with her own agency and her own intellect, and so she can message things however she wants,” he says. “But at the end of the day, facts don’t really have feelings.”

Would he, as someone whose mission has also been to deliver history lessons and who also began by studying journalism, ever advise her to tone it down? To drop the expletives or the sexual nature of some of her posts or the in-your-face rhetoric?

“I was always taught not to say anything you’re not ready to be held publicly accountable for,” he says. “Just always ask: ‘What is my objective with this?’ If it’s to build alliances, maybe a more broad-based, universally appealing message is appropriate.

“But if it’s to speak truth to power, to break away from half-truths and misinformation, then a sharper tone is required.”

Jionde says the college degree she earned has armed her with facts and the ability to do research, from how Ivy League schools used slaves to the history of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

She’s living in Charlotte now, working on her second book and her brand and getting invited to speak to teens, recently through a program called SmART Kinston and another in Charlotte at Behailu Academy about black history and race – something she says she loves doing.

“The less ignorance we have, the less hatred, the less fear. Because to me, racism is born of fear and ignorance,” Jionde says. “The more people are aware of everything happening in our society, and that has happened, (the more) they’ll be able to make logical decisions and will be able to point out patterns of systematic oppression instead of falling into them.”

She continues: “That’s why I believe the more black people knowing about ‘Hey, it’s not necessarily our fault we are broke right now, but here is how we perpetuate our brokenness’ – that’s why I’m here,” she says.

“I’m going to get angry white people telling me that’s racist, and I’m going to get angry black people telling me that’s anti-black,” she says.

“But here I am, me, with all my facts and logic, just looking at you like, ‘Can you really argue with me?’