Nell Stokes: Stories of an Education Advocate

December 19, 2023–December 31, 2024

This exhibition on the first floor of our museum tells the story of local activist Nell Stokes. Stokes arrived in Albany in 1963 and set to work finding a community. She moved from Montgomery, Alabama, and brought with her lessons learned from a segregated childhood.  Soon after her arrival, Stokes made inroads with churches, non-profits, and smaller social groups and began advocating for social transformation through education.  This exhibit explores her work through these organizations, her time at the YWCA, and the creation of the Black American History Essay Contest.  


This exhibition showcases the Nell Stokes Manuscript Collection, which includes photographs, scrapbooks, pamphlets, and more that highlight the breadth of her network. The scrapbooks were gifts from a former Teen Action Group member whom Stokes had inspired; the essay collections are filled with sponsorship ads from sororities and fraternities interested in her mission; and the newspaper clippings feature articles Stokes wrote, as well as advertisements purchased for the Black American History Essay Contest (now called the Creative Expressions Contest). As Stokes poured her time and creativity into her new city, the city poured back into her.

Serving Albany

Stokes flourished working as the Youth Program director at YWCA. The YWCA is “dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all.” Stokes heard their mission and helped create and manage programs that educated participants of all ages on self-advocacy, health, employment, and finances.  She listened to the needs of the participating teens and created programming for and with them. As programming became more fulfilling, one student, Lorraine Young, was inspired to save their memories in scrapbooks filled with photographs. Through the YWCA's program booklets, we can begin to see the wide extent of audiences the YWCA served.  The collection includes images of the Annual Women's History Month celebration that honored women in the Capital Region for their contributions.

Nell’s Roadmap to Collaboration

In addition to the programs she created at the YWCA and the Black Expressions contest, she also worked with leaders of the NAACP and Albany Black Women's Association to fundraise for their original programs. Stokes was dedicated to investing in local youth. She organized plays and art projects at churches and public schools. Stokes stimulated and encouraged enthusiasm for history among the young participants.


Black American Essay Contest

In the early 1980s, Stokes seized another opportunity to uplift Black History and connect young people with their inspiring roots: The Black American Essay Contest.  Stokes created this contest to invite young people to think critically about Black Art and Black History. The “Teen Voice” section in The South End Scene wrote that [they] "hope essays will bring out more of the contributions of Black Americans to past and present society of America and other countries." The creation and stewardship of this program served as a major step on her path to highlight the importance of education — and still serves the youth of Albany today. Now called the Creative Expressions Contest, this annual contest of artistic expression is overseen by the Albany Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. The influx of essays every year shows the need for this program, and the growth and depth of what students submit each year shows the power of it.