A Tribute to Dr. Lena Prewitt

Dr. Lena (Burrell) Prewitt, an educator dedicated to advancing knowledge, truth and equality and The University of Alabama’s first Black female professor, died Feb. 14 at the age of 92. 

Appointed as an associate professor of business administration to what’s now Culverhouse College of Business in 1970, Prewitt brought a wealth of academic and professional accomplishments with her. A native of Boiling Springs, Alabama, she earned her bachelor’s from Stillman College and her master’s and doctorate from Indiana University—Bloomington. Before pursuing her passion for teaching, Prewitt worked as the only African American on the Saturn V project under rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. 

black and white photograph of Dr. Lena Prewitt

Dr. Prewitt was a noted speaker on manufacturing, education, equal rights and international relations. She served on a congressional commission on affirmative action and higher education and was also a diplomat to four countries while serving on the advisory state commissions to China, India, South Africa and Poland. She retired from UA in 1994 and went on to serve as chair of the department of business and economics and vice president for financial affairs at Stillman College.  

Dr. Ron Dulek, the John R. Miller Professor of Management in Culverhouse, first met Prewitt when he joined UA as an assistant professor in 1977. He said his first impression of her was, “She was stern; she was kind.” 

“She called most people — other than her son — by their last name. I was Dulek. She never called me Dr., Professor, or Ron. Always Dulek. Said sternly,” he said. “But when you looked in her eyes, you could see a twinkle that said, ‘I like you.’ That twinkle made Lena special.”   
Over the years, Dulek and Prewitt bonded and became friends. He said she expected the best out of everyone, especially her students. 
“But she loved them no matter how they performed,” he said. 
Dr. James E. King Jr, Culverhouse Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Miles-Rose Professor of Leadership, never took a class with Dr. Prewitt, but he, too, was impressed by her. 
“I was an engineering major, but I heard about her fierce intelligence and her no-nonsense classroom presence while I was an undergraduate here,” he said. 

“Years later, I interviewed with her when looking at PhD programs. She was her usual direct self, as she thoughtfully explained the challenges of doctoral programs and the profession. Though I decided to study elsewhere, I appreciated her wisdom and her clarity in sharing it.” 

Beyond the impression she left on her colleagues, friends and students, Dr. Lena Prewitt blazed a trail that carries meaning and hope for many. 
“Her legacy means the world to those of us who have followed in her footsteps,” said Dr. Pamela Payne-Foster, professor of community medicine and population health and president of the UA Black Faculty and Staff Association. 
“We just hope that the struggles that she experienced as the first Black female professor will leave a legacy that will never be forgotten.” 

“It was not easy being the first Black female professor at The University of Alabama,” said Dulek. “But Lena’s response was perfect: high standards; high expectations; and, ‘Come to see me if you need help. I’ll make sure you perform to the standards I expect.’”