A historic Baltimore Catholic school will name its community center in honor of Bill and Camille Cosby, the biggest donors in the school's 184-year history and fierce champions of education, the school announced Friday.
St. Frances Academy, which serves 162 primarily low-income high school students, will host the comedian, his wife and their relatives in a ceremony at the St. Frances Community Center on April 20.
In addition to giving $2 million to St. Frances in 2005 to support its scholarship program, Camille Cosby also has a strong connection to the founders of the Baltimore school, having been educated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the oldest order of African-American nuns in the country, for seven years.
"I can still hear their voices when I'm writing something, when I'm giving a speech," she said in an interview, adding that the sisters were sticklers for grammar. "They just wanted us to go into the world prepared with knowledge — knowledge about ourselves and the different disciplines."
Bill Cosby, who was raised Methodist and Baptist and attended public schools, said that the St. Frances center dedication "is my wife's story."
St. Frances was founded by Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, who established the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore more than 180 years ago. Camille Cosby attended the now-closed St. Cyprian Elementary-Middle School in Washington, also founded by the Oblate Sisters.
St. France's community center opened 10 years ago, serving as a bridge to the community by offering voter registration, GED classes, after-school programs, and other community services and events. According to the center's website, its mission is "uniting the school to the community, and the community to the school."
Camille Cosby said her experience being educated by the Oblate Sisters was among the most formative of her life. She said she committed the Cosby name to the community center in honor of "an extraordinary order of women."
She still has strong ties to many of the nuns and speaks with passion about the important role they played, and continue to play, in educating black children. It was at St. Cyprian, she said, that she learned there were three African popes.
"They gave us a sense of history pertaining to being black, and because they are women, they gave us pride about our gender," she said. "They didn't show any prejudices, they nurtured us, they wanted all of us to be educated."
Her husband said, "This is the education that she remembers, that fueled her and stays with her. When you hear Mrs. Cosby talk about her formal education, she faced systems and schools that devalued children because of the color of their skin.
"But when she got to this particular order, they left all of that behind, and these people became champions to her, teaching and psychologically resurrecting in her the better parts of how she felt, and could feel about herself."
Three-quarters of St. Frances' high school students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, and the school boasts a 98 percent college-acceptance rate among its seniors. Between 2003 and 2012, 98 percent of the school's alumni earned a college degree within five years of graduating from St. Frances.
Camille and Bill Cosby, both of whom have doctorates in education, said that given the state of public education in Baltimore and the country, St. Frances should be held up as an example for what others should strive for.
Bill Cosby said he wanted the attention to be on the school, not his name.
"I do know that in Baltimore, there is a place that is taking care of business the way it ought to be taken care of. And for that, I honor them," he said.