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'Color of Water' Author James McBride Speaks At Pace Commencement

James McBride, Pace University commencement speaker Photo Credit: Provided
The late David Swope, an Ossining native, is an honorary Pace University degree recipient, posthumously at Wednesday's undergraduate commencement ceremonies in Pleasantville. Photo Credit: Provided

James McBride, an award-winning author, musician, and screenwriter is this year’s honorary degree recipient and speaker for Pace’s Westchester undergraduate commencement on Wednesday, May 16.

Graduation ceremonies began at 11 a.m. on the Pleasantville campus, 861 Bedford Road.

McBride is a teacher and native New Yorker, born and raised in the Red Hook housing projects in Brooklyn, and later St. Albans, Queens. He is the eighth of 12 children. 

McBride went to New York City public schools. He graduated from Oberlin College, where he studied music and communications and he earned a master’s in journalism from Columbia University at age 22. 

He was a staff writer for the Boston Globe and Washington Post, and later served as a tenor saxophonist and composer for jazz luminaries. 

McBride is best known for his New York Times bestselling memoir, "The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother." The book became a modern literary classic, read in schools across America. 

His novel, "The Good Lord Bird," about the abolitionist John Brown, won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction. 

His work includes other novels, screenplays, musicals, and a biography of James Brown, called "Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul."

In 2016, President Barack Obama presented McBride with the National Humanities Medal "for humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America.” 

McBride's most recent book, published in 2017, is a short story collection called "Five-Carat Soul."

He has been a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University for more than a decade, mentoring young writers. He also created the Sister Lee music program, which teaches piano, drums, and music history to young people from the housing project where he grew up.

Also on Wednesday, David Avery Swope is an honorary degree recipient (posthumously) for Pace’s Westchester undergraduate commencement.

Swope was the third generation of his family to take a leading role in Westchester County. 

The Ossining native went to school in Scarborough before graduating from Harvard and Columbia Law School. He joined the Peace Corps and served in India. He formed a legal aid society in Bombay, now Mumbai. 

Swope became a corporate lawyer in Manhattan, first at White & Case and then Davis Polk. He then came home to Westchester to manage the family businesses, which included a tennis club and Tappan Hill Mansion. He built the tennis club into one of the first full-service gyms in the area. 

As a successful businessman, Swope also became a major Westchester philanthropist. Swope was deeply involved in Teatown, founded with his family’s donation, and supported the Westchester Land Trust. 

Swope was chairman of the Jacob Burns Film Center and served on the boards of the Ossining Children’s Center and the Phelps Memorial Hospital. For many years, he was an active board member at Westchester Community College. He funded David Swope Scholarship to help graduates of Westchester Community College transfer to Pace. His passion for the environment led to his support of the Pace University Environmental Center.

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