Shani Mott created spaces before she died. Inside her home, church and academic lecture halls, she established atmospheres where she scrutinized power structures, such as her employer’s, and made others challenge their thinking about Black identity. She was 47.

Mott, a scholar of Africana studies at the Johns Hopkins University, had presence that was grand and reached many, said her husband, Nathan Connolly. It’s why more than 200 people are expected to gather Sunday afternoon to celebrate her life at the Bunting Meyerhoff Interfaith and Community Service Center.

Connolly, who serves as the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at Hopkins, said he and their three kids are fortunate to have had such a great village surrounding them since she died March 12 — four days before her 48th birthday.

“The kids have been maintaining their activities, and as they can to continue pursuing the interests that Shani loved,” Connolly said of London, Clarke and Elijah.

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“Obviously, we’re profoundly changed as a family. So a lot of what we are doing now is sitting through this process of unfolding. And just seeing what the next act looks like, as we move without her physical presence, but still very much with her in our memory,” he said.

Mott was diagnosed with adrenocortical carcinoma, or cancer of the adrenal gland, in 2021.

The family framed a photo of Shani Mott celebrating her birthday and placed it in the dining room. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Mott was the daughter of Martin Mott, a Vietnam War veteran with disabilities, and Sandra Mott, a schoolteacher.

Shani Mott obtained a bachelor’s degree in African American studies and English from Wesleyan University in 1998. She earned her Ph.D. in American culture from the University of Michigan in 2005. That’s where she met Connolly.

In the ensuing years, Mott served as the director of Africana studies at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida, from 2005 to 2008. During her tenure, she also taught English courses.

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In 2008, she accepted a position at Hopkins while serving on the Homewood Council on Inclusive Excellence’s Diversity Education and Inclusive Classrooms subcommittee. According to a university release, it marked another significant chapter in her academic career as she helped launch Hopkins’ first social justice and equity collective and curated a library exhibit on expressions of Black freedom.

It’s also when she and Connolly first moved to Baltimore. He was on a tenure track as an assistant professor, while Mott accepted a postdoctoral fellowship within the university’s Department of English.

“There was no American studies department at Hopkins. And, so, English became the closest fit for her. But, you know, it was a very different kind of atmosphere than the kind of work she’d like to do” Connolly explained, adding that there weren’t any Black faculty within the department.

Left: Friends and family enter the Mott-Connolly household through the back door, which Mott could always see from her usual seat at the head of the dining room table. Right: a bouquet of flowers in the living room. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Mott had a complex relationship with Hopkins, he said. “Universities like Hopkins — and this isn’t unique to Hopkins — tend to have a very hierarchical culture. ... And so there are all these kinds of ways in which, you know, even when people were trying to be welcoming to us, as a couple, there were still moments where she felt kind of like a second-class citizen,” Connolly said.

Tara Bynum, who earned a Ph.D. in the Krieger School’s Department of English in 2009 and is an assistant professor of English and African American studies at the University of Iowa, saw how Mott used her influence to begin to shape what would become the Africana Studies Department at Hopkins.

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“She chose to be an academic who did not follow the sort of traditional path of success,” Bynum said, referring to how institutions venerate books, publications and science. “But I think it’s also interesting that I think Hopkins ends up being the place that allows Shani to have the life that she would like to have, where she can teach the number of courses and have the day to day in academia, even as it also may have undervalued her.”

Mott left Hopkins in 2011, prompted by, her husband said, a desire to work at an academic institution that would fully recognize her. Over the next several years, she worked at private schools including Maret School in Washington and the Bryn Mawr School. The family moved during this time but returned to Baltimore for the birth of their child in 2013.

Soon after, Connolly received an offer to teach at New York University. The family spent a year in New York, then moved back to Baltimore for a third time in 2017 and bought a home in the city’s Homeland neighborhood.

Nathan Connolly points out blueprints of the house in the hallway. In the background is a quilt made by a family friend that depicts a tree, because the friend said their house feels like a safe and rooted place. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Mott returned to Hopkins in the role of lecturer for the Center for Africana Studies. Additionally, she advocated for social justice and equity at Hopkins through service on numerous committees, such as the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, Social Justice and Equity Collective and the bylaws subcommittee.

From 2018 to 2019, she served as co-principal investigator of the Housing Our Story Project, designed to redress the absence of Black staff and contract worker voices in the Homewood campus archives, according to a release.

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Minkah Makalani, who became director of the Center for Africana Studies in 2021, said in a release that Mott “displayed a generosity of heart” to go with her intellect.

“A constant presence and member of the Center for Africana Studies faculty, her spirit and thoughtfulness were always on display in how she engaged our work, mentored her students, and did the hard work of helping build the center,” Makalani said.

Students such as Summer Mai Li Suliman were in awe of Mott’s work on Africana studies — so much so, she decided to include Mott in her college application essay to Hopkins.

“Even if I didn’t get in, I just wanted to have some form of, like, connection with her or at least letting her know that her work impacted me. And so, when I found out I got in, I ended up signing up for two of her classes,” Suliman said.

“Knowing she spent those last days in places and with people that she truly cared about — you can’t fake that. She was still present in school and being with students. You can’t fake that kind of genuine care for the craft and for the futures of your students that she had,” Suliman said.

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Subtly included throughout Pierre Bennu’s painting of the Connolly family are moments of love from Black media. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)
A painting by Pierre Bennu of, from left to right, Nathan Connolly, Clarke Connolly, Elijah Connolly, Shani Mott and London Connolly standing in front of their home is displayed on the living room mantelpiece. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

In 2022, Mott and Connolly gained national attention after filing a lawsuit alleging that the appraisal of their home was undervalued on the basis of racial bias, according to the New York Times.

The two had hoped to refinance the mortgage on their house in Homeland, a predominantly white area. But, when the appraisal was significantly lower than expected, the couple sued the mortgage company that denied the loan, the appraisal company that was contracted and the individual appraiser.

Two weeks after Mott’s death, on March 25, Connolly announced a settlement with the mortgage company.

“I think she struggled sometimes not to feel invisible,” Connolly said. “Across higher education, we tend not to have the kinds of appreciation for people who do excellent teaching, program building, outreach that ties us to our communities or conversations that hold us [academics] accountable, which is all the kind of work that Shani was committed to.

“But she kept doing the work, nonetheless,” he added.

An exhibit titled “The Testimony of Shani Mott” was on display Friday at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church ahead of the Sunday memorial service.

A celebration of Mott’s life will be held from 2-4 p.m. on Sunday at the Bunting Meyerhoff Interfaith Center. It’s located on the university’s campus at 3509 N. Charles Street and will be open to the public.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Cinderitha Payton Scholarship Fund at Pleasant Hope Baptist.