Coming Into Focus: Janine Stewart Baggett '73 Shares Her Story

Coming Into Focus: Janine Stewart Baggett '73 Shares Her Story

“What I did, by being the first Black student to graduate from Agnes Irwin, is often perceived by others as ‘trailblazing’ and ‘historical,’ but I was just doing what I wanted to do and doing what was laid out in front of me.” -- Janine Stewart Baggett ’73 

Visiting the site of her 1973 Commencement at Bryn Mawr College’s Goodhart Hall fifty years later, Janine Stewart Baggett ’73 lit up. “You can see that I’m still the same playful person today as I was fifty-eight years ago when I started at Agnes Irwin,” she laughed. Today, Janine (as she prefers to be called) is a multidimensional woman who has worn many hats in her sixty-eight years — devoted mother, sister, daughter, and friend, Cornell University graduate, engineer, one-time dancer, retail executive, peacemaker, world traveler, and passionate ministry worker. 

A cherished classmate to 1973 alumnae, Janine also holds an important place in the history of The Agnes Irwin School as the school’s first Black graduate. In June of 1973, Headmistress Anne S. Lenox presented her with the school’s highest award, remarking, “To be the one who leads the way is often to be misunderstood, to be hurt, and all-too-often it leads one to wonder whether or not it has been truly worth it. At a very young age, you were a Black child in a totally white world. Your handling of this lonely situation reflected your sensitivity, your courage and your maturity, and paved the way for the many others who have and will follow you. We have watched with pride your flowering into a young woman of poise, intellect and artistic ability.” 

Fast forward to May 2023, at her fiftieth Reunion, Janine was once again recognized — this time, with a special award from Head of School Sally Keidel for her decades-long commitment to Agnes Irwin that included two terms on the AIS Board of Trustees as well as serving on the search committee that named Penney Moss Head of School. Moved to tears by the palpable positivity in the room, Janine began her remarks saying, “I was reluctant to accept this award, but I knew it was the right thing to do. The teachers at Agnes Irwin taught me and nurtured me with the same love and care as every other student.” Turning her gaze and attention to her 1973 classmates in the audience, she shared, “It was your acceptance, love, friendship, and kindness that allowed me to thrive and find my way. You just let me be me. Yes, there were times when I questioned what I was doing here and I felt like I was carrying the entire African American race on my back. But there was always someone who let me know that all I had to do was my best. While this award has been presented to me, it belongs to all of us.” 

Agnes Irwin magazine had the opportunity to talk with Janine about her life and legacy. Looking back, when Janine was in the fifth grade in the Philadelphia public school system, the principal of her elementary school informed Janine’s mother that Janine was doing work far more advanced than her classmates and that a private school academic curriculum might be a better fit. “There were not many Black children in private schools in 1965,” said Janine, continuing, “We looked at several schools and I remember my mother said that there was something about Mrs. Lenox’s voice that convinced her that Agnes Irwin was the place for me.” 

While her parents had not done anything specific to prepare their young daughter for her barrier-breaking role, they understood her independent spirit and what she could handle, and further, would have respected Janine’s decision to leave AIS “at any time if I wasn’t feeling it.” But there was no reason to leave — “everyone was so wonderful to me.” Janine pointed out that she was a bit of an unwitting trailblazer given that she was merely a child when she came to AIS in 1965. “What I did, by being the first Black student to graduate from Agnes Irwin, is often perceived by others as ‘trailblazing’ and ‘historical,’ but I was just doing what I wanted to do and doing what was laid out in front of me,” said Janine.

On a few occasions, being the only Black student was hurtful. Before Janine started at AIS, there were whispers of some parents who threatened to pull their daughter or financial support from Agnes Irwin should a Black student be admitted. In another instance, Janine remembered a classmate who told her that she wasn’t “allowed to play with [Janine] anymore.” Moreover, one of her biggest hurdles was finding harmony between her spaces. Janine spent eight to ten hours a day in an all-white environment and then went home to an all-Black neighborhood. “I had a life here at Agnes Irwin on the Main Line and I had a life at home in WestPhiladelphia. I was bridging two worlds. I lost friends in West Philly,” she said. One memory that she does not speak of often, she said, was the time “when I caught myself in the middle of the two worlds. I walked past a mirror and I saw a Black girl. In that split second, I had forgotten my true identity. That reflection forced me back into reality. So at times it was lonely, but I came from such a loving background that it didn’t put me in a dark place.” 

Her parents’ original purpose — to expose Janine to more advanced coursework — was “most definitely” achieved, she said, explaining, “I remember having a much broader curriculum at Irwin’s. I loved the math and science classes. When I declared junior year that I wanted to study engineering in college, there were certain courses required in order to be accepted. Agnes Irwin was going to send me to Haverford to take Calculus, but Dr. [Ed] Gardner put together a curriculum and taught AP Calculus to a handful of us,” she said. 

Janine recounted a few of her cherished memories. “Lee (Klotz) reminded me that the whole fifth grade stood on the steps to welcome me from the train on my first day. Averel (Roberts Wilson) was the first friend to invite me to a sleepover that year. When we were older, I remember that Elizabeth (Heppe Brownback) took me all the way home to West Philly in her red Pinto when I missed the bus or needed a ride. Of course, Pam (Burtis Bartholomew) and I have been close friends since sixth grade. We both went to Cornell University and worked at Scott Paper Company together after college. We were pregnant at the same time too.” 

Janine with classmate Cynthia "Cinch" Rugart at their 50th Reunion in May, 2023

The transition to Cornell University presented Janine with an opportunity to “just be a number and not be in the spotlight anymore.” She intentionally chose an all-Black dormitory to find her identity as a young Black woman in the world outside of Agnes Irwin. But she couldn’t shake her preternatural ability to trailblaze — when Janine graduated from the Cornell University College of Engineering, she was the second Black woman to do so and received the Meredith C. Gourdine Award for Outstanding Leadership in May, 1976. “The nurturing and freedom to develop at Irwin’s, coupled with the solid foundation of my family and church, gave me the will and the strength to achieve my engineering degree,” Janine said.

As for her legacy, she said, “I believe God predestined me for this assignment. When things are presented to me in life, and I think I might want to try it out, I say to myself, ‘I want to go for that and here we go!’ And I do it. I am pretty unshakeable. I believe in a strong work ethic, which I learned from my parents. As a Black female, there are certain expectations that people have. But for me, now, at sixty-eight, I don’t want to do that anymore — I just want to be me. I pray that my Agnes Irwin journey has, and will continue to inspire and encourage not just Black girls but all young people.” 

Thank you for running so we can walk. MALIA SABREE ’29

Ms. Baggett is a trailblazer and role model for us all. Defying expectations and breaking barriers from such a young age at a predominantly white institution is a great feat that should be commended, and I’m ecstatic to know Agnes Irwin is giving her her respective flowers. I know that she will continue to inspire the current and future generations of Black students who have followed in her footsteps as members of the Agnes Irwin community. NAHLA THOMAS ’23 

Thank you for being the first. It is always a very hard thing to do. Thank you for blazing the trail for me, for the Black women who preceded me and for the black women who will succeed me. ALIMAH JALLOH ’24 

Ms. Baggett is an inspiration to all students for her perseverance and strength. I’m so 
happy that we are honoring her! MELANIE HAYES ’25

Thank you for breaking down race barriers! ANAIS SUBER ’23 

Ms. Baggett was a game changer. SOUKEYNA BA ’29

It is inspiring to hear Ms. Baggett’s story, entering a place where she was the only Black student and never letting that get in the way. NYLAH URQUHART ’25

As a graduate of the class of 2009 and as an African American student who attended AIS, I am incredibly grateful for Ms. Stewart Baggett’s contribution to our community, though I have never met her. Being one of the few Black students in our class was certainly a challenge at times, but I’m appreciative there were other students who shared my experience and perspective. To be the only Black student, Ms. Stewart Baggett experienced something entirely different and challenging. Yet she persisted, and we all stood on her shoulders as we made our own journey through the hallways at AIS. I am incredibly grateful to have met and maintained friendships with the women of color from AIS. It is in them that I see brilliant scientists, entrepreneurs, advocates, and powerful Black women. I believe that it is through their hard work, dedication, and leadership that we show our gratitude to and honor alumnae like Ms. Stewart Baggett. FAY ALEXANDER ’09

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