From College Park to the Caribbean, Sugar Hill Sisterhood Celebrates 50th Gathering
Photos courtesy of the Sugar Hill sisters
When Sheila Hawkes ’74 returned from her Poconos honeymoon in 2003, she dropped her suitcase off—and promptly picked up another one to head to Amsterdam the next morning with her oldest friends from UMD.
The bonds of the Sugar Hill Sisterhood (a nod to the affluent Harlem neighborhood) are just that sticky. For 50 years, these women have gathered every December—without husbands or children—to explore the sand dunes of Dubai or conquer their fear of heights at Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue, skipping only the 2020 pandemic year. Now, they’re planning a golden anniversary trip to tropical Grenada—a long way from when they had to “put pennies together” for a nice dinner at Hogate’s Restaurant as college students.
They arrived in College Park on the heels of racial equality protests in the late 1960s, just 11 years after the first Black woman earned a bachelor’s degree at UMD. Out of a student population of nearly 27,000 in 1970, less than 5% was Black—so it was a surprise when eight African American women found themselves assigned as freshmen to live together on the eighth floor of Elkton Hall.
“We were our refuge,” says Hawkes. That was especially true for Joyce Dawkins, who originally planned to rent a room in a house off campus—but was never allowed inside after the white owner discovered she was Black. Becoming part of the Sugar Hill crew “helped me find my way,” says Dawkins, who later graduated from University of Maryland Global Campus (formerly University College).
A few commuters brought the total to 11. They laughed over late-night games of spades and bid whist; delighted in Caribbean treats brought by Ida Benjamin ’74, whose family was from Trinidad; and looked out for each other, warning about racist professors to avoid.
“Being the only Black person in a class, you had to listen to what
you were taught and decide, did it fit with what you knew? Was it being
slanted another way?” says Linda Cheek (also a UMGC grad). “It was
Their annual tradition started with a birthday dinner for Hawkes in 1972, and after graduation, they added a sleepover at a sister’s apartment, and eventually, long weekends at hotels. Before social media and email, they’d bring boxes of photos and memorabilia from weddings and baby showers to share, catching up on a year’s worth of news.
Neither car accidents nor family emergencies could stop them from getting together, but a winter storm in 1989 put their commitment to the test. Cheek convinced her husband—who “doesn’t drive when there’s one snowflake”—to take her and Helen James (another UMGC grad) down to Georgetown, where the whole crew hunkered down as a blizzard raged.
Most of the women attend yearly; Hawkes and James proudly proclaim they’ve never missed a reunion. The sisters attract attention, whether from travelers wondering if they’re a singing group or celebrities like actress Jennifer Lewis.
“She was coming to the White House to see Barack Obama, but she saw
us and talked to us and got so excited for us. She even wanted a
picture!” says Everene Johnson-Turner ’74.
Their friendship goes beyond their yearly reunions. The Sugar Hill Sisterhood has sappy nicknames for family members: husbands are “sugar daddies,” children are “sugar babies” and grandchildren are “sweet tarts.” And like family members, they show up for grandchildren’s recitals and children’s weddings—and through challenging times as well. When Dawkins’ boyfriend was killed in a car accident in the late 1970s, she moved in with Hawkes, who “really nurtured my soul and spirit” in her time of grief.
And when Cheek’s mother, known for her elaborate church hats, died in 1996, all of the sisters wore their biggest, best, prettiest hats in her honor. “I didn’t ask them to do that,” Cheek says. “I’ll never forget it.”
Now, as they prepare for this year’s trip, they may complement each other again. They’ve gotten matching tote bags and T-shirts before, and Johnson-Turner’s dream is to get the whole crew in identical tracksuits.
“It might get us first class all the way!” she says.
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