Lettie Jane Austin Fenderson, 83; Howard English Professor

Lettie Jane Austin Fenderson taught at Howard University until late last month.
Lettie Jane Austin Fenderson taught at Howard University until late last month. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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Friday, April 18, 2008

Lettie Jane Austin Fenderson, 83, a Howard University English professor for more than six decades, died of a stroke April 4 at Washington Hospital Center. She was a resident of the District.

Known professionally as Dr. Lettie Jane Austin, she was born in Joplin, Mo., and was a cum laude English graduate from Lincoln University in Missouri in 1946. The next year, she became one of the first African Americans to receive a master's degree in English at Kansas State University.

She continued her studies in English at Sarah Lawrence College in 1948 and in education at New York University in 1949. She was an Alice J. Rosenberg Fellow at Stanford University, from which she received a doctorate in education in 1952.

Studying abroad as a Fulbright scholar, Dr. Austin also received a master's degree in Elizabethan literature from the University of Nottingham (England) in 1954 and, before returning to the United States, studied Irish literature at Trinity College in Dublin. She also received a master's degree in 1964 and a doctorate in 1988, both in psychology, from Howard University. More recently, she completed a paralegal program at the Department of Agriculture, earning straight A's and finishing at the top of her class.

She began her long career at Howard in 1947 as an English instructor, becoming a full professor in 1968. She published a number of articles on education, reading and African American literature. She was one of the authors of "College Reading Skills" (1966) and "The Black Man and the Promise of America" (1970), with Lewis Fenderson and Sophia Nelson.

At Howard, she held a number of administrative positions, including director of the College of Liberal Arts Reading Program, acting chairman of the English Department, director of the graduate program in English and chairman of the Graduate School Program in International Affairs. A mentor to generations of students, she taught until late last month.

In frequent demand as a consultant, she worked with the Educational Testing Service, Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, Navajo Nation Community College in Arizona, the Caribbean Exchange Program at the College of Virgin Islands and the Peace Corps in Togo and Senegal.

She was a classical pianist and enjoyed politics, sports, good conversation and dinner parties. A friend and colleague, Lorraine Henry, described her as "an awe-struck groupie" after meeting cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Joshua Bell.

Dr. Austin's husband, Dr. Lewis H. Fenderson Jr., who also was an English professor at Howard, died in 1983.

There are no immediate survivors.

-- Joe Holley

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