“We needed a place
from the anguish
that weighs on you,
and the beer cans
they throw at you,
and the names they call you.”
To describe Daphne Maxwell Reid as a Renaissance woman is an understatement.
The Manhattan native earned a Bachelors Degree from Northwestern University while becoming the school’s homecoming queen in the mid-1960s, then launched a modeling career, expanded into acting, and eventually entertained millions of television viewers every week as Aunt Vivian on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Those are just the early years.
“I don’t have a typical day,” she says. “I go to board meetings. I have all my books … and a certain kind of jacket that I make and wear for sale on my website.”
She also devotes a considerable amount of energy to the events and organizations founded by her husband of more than three decades, Tim Reid.
Reid is a director and actor who many Americans recognize as Venus Fly Trap from WKRP in Cincinnati, as well as the founder of the Legacy Media Institute in Virginia, where the Reids live. Last week, he presented his wife’s latest fashion line at “A Touch of Summer,” the Tim Reid Productions 3rd Annual Fashion Showcase in Richmond.
“I’ve been sewing since I was nine-years-old and I always made my own clothes,” says Mrs. Reid. “The Daphne Style line includes an Asian inspired topper made with Chinese Silk Brocade.”
While she has obviously mastered the ability to seize opportunities that come her way, Reid has also learned how to roll with whatever punches life throws at her. And when necessary, she can punch back.
Northwestern recruited Daphne Maxwell from the Bronx High School of Science, where she was a Merritt scholar, in 1966. With only 66 African American students in a class of 5,000, the institution offered little of the multiculturalism she knew growing up.
“I think they needed to integrate,” she recalls.
The first time she entered her freshman dorm, the student she was supposed to live with said, “I am not rooming with no ni—ers.” The hostility introduced a pattern of disrespect that seemed to effect all the students who looked like her.
“It was horrid,” she continues. “There were a lot of people who weren’t happy we were there.”
Since the school seemed to tell students of color that they did not belong, the students of color wanted to create a space where they did.
“We needed a place that we could call our own,” Reid explains. “A place where you could go and decompress from the anguish that weighs on you and the beer cans that they throw at you and the names that they call you.”
After more than one unsuccessful attempt to gain the University’s support, the group decided to shut the whole thing down.
“We went militant and took over the building that housed their only computer,” Reid says. “This was a month after Martin Luther King was shot, and we had a little bit emotionalism.”
The effort began with a “diversionary tactic” that capitalized on a rumor about a protest.
“Girls ran and pointed towards the police at the Administration building,” says Reid. “Somebody had said that something was going to happen.”
The staged brouhaha distracted a security guard at the Bursar’s office long enough for the students to move in. Thirty-eight hours later, Northwestern met all of their demands, which included “housing (so) we could determine who lives with us … Black Studies … professors … deans and … to be part of the hiring process.”
The incident helped amplify the voice of a population that had been part of America longer than the country itself.
Reid would join that conversation as an actor when Robert Conrad cast her in a series called The Duke after she graduated from Northwestern and started a career in Chicago.
She became a significant part of the dialogue during her Fresh Prince years, but is quick to credit others for the growing success of African Americans in the media.
“It really started developing in the 60s with Diahann Carroll,” she says. “It continued in the 70s and … we were getting more power from the inside, but we still don’t have anybody who can greenlight a project, except Oprah or Tyler Perry.”
She says that the late-80s CBS series Frank’s Place helped African Americans “tell our own stories from our point of view.”
Frank’s Place is about an African American Ivy League professor who inherits a swanky New Orleans restaurant. It starred Tim Reid in the lead role and Daphne among the supporting and earned the bittersweet rank of number three entry on TV Guide’s list of shows that were “Cancelled Too Soon.”
“It was a well-lauded show that changed a view of Black people,” she says. “It showed people that you usually don’t see on TV.”
Besides highlighting the “culture of familial relationships” within the Black community, the show accurately portrayed the diversity of culture within those families. According to Reid, this is essential for understanding African Americans.
“We come in all shapes sizes and community types,” she says. “We run the gamut.”
Likewise, Reid has been crossing borders and defying stereotypes long before she even got to college, and there is no indication that she plans to stop any time soon.
This summer, she’ll be back on set playing a character in Victoria Rowell’s upcoming feature drama, Jacqueline and Jilly.