Candace Bacchus Hollingsworth

Year of Graduation: 

"My first year, almost all my evaluations included: ‘She has really good ideas; she just needs to let others hear them.’ Well, I don’t have a problem with that anymore."

Asking Candace Bacchus Hollingsworth ’99 if she’s a “career politician” sets her teeth on edge. Yes, she ran in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor of Maryland. Yes, she served seven years as mayor of Hyattsville, Maryland, and co-founded the activist group Our Black Party. And yet, she firmly rejects the label’s implications. “A career politician sounds self-serving,” Hollingsworth says. “I’ve never felt personal glory in public service. … Of course, I do get gratification in being of service.”

During her two years at Exeter, a non sibi philosophy took root and carried into her college career, first at Emory University and then Georgetown University. Although Hollingsworth didn’t come to service accidentally, she didn’t plan to, either. Her journey began in her freshman year of public high school in Memphis, Tennessee, when a guidance counselor handed her an Exeter Summer brochure and told her to apply. At the time, Hollingsworth understood little about the Academy. (“I had no idea it was a boarding school,” she says. “Boarding school was for bad kids!”) And her parents, while proud, were unequivocal: She had to get a scholarship to attend. Though she secured a scholarship to attend the summer session, the cost of an Exeter education — including the books and the basics of living far from home — were always in the background. Attendance required sacrifice, sometimes in unexpected forms. “I often credit Exeter with my parents’ reuniting,” she says. “They knew the only way they could afford all the extra expenses was to move back in together” after they divorced. It was a sacrifice with a silver lining for both her education and her family. With that kind of commitment as an example, Hollingsworth took her opportunity at Exeter very seriously.

She applied for the regular session and was accepted, returning to campus as a new upper with a strong sense of belonging, but also navigating difficult cultural expectations. “There’s wading through others’ assumptions, and then your own assumptions of what others think of you,” she says of her experiences. “There were challenges.”

She recalls tensions during college admission time when some fellow students suggested that her acceptances were a product of her skin color and not her work ethic. In those moments, a different Exeter emerged.

“I talk a lot about the larger school community at Exeter,” she says, “but there is another community. … The community of Black people who cared for me. Black faculty members who helped me navigate not having enough.” Hollingsworth speaks fondly of those who helped Black students in the absence of their families, whether by offering money to buy books, sewing prom dresses or giving critical feedback on schoolwork. Community is “the woman who gave me keys to a space so I could do Black girls’ hair on the weekends,” she says. “The Black community at Exeter was my foundation.”

Another unexpected challenge? Learning to use her voice. Hollingsworth says, “My first year, almost all my evaluations included: ‘She has really good ideas; she just needs to let others hear them.’ Well, I don’t have a problem with that anymore,” she adds.

Although she and her running mate did not win Maryland’s support in the primary, Hollingsworth will continue to raise her voice for marginalized citizens. “It’s hard to be both an activist and a politician because you almost inevitably have to compromise on something,” she says. “I spent my early years doing politics in a way that made me palatable but undermined my voice. I decided, in the future, I would never do that again.”

When asked what’s next for her, Hollingsworth says she’s “not eager to run for office again.” Instead, she says, “I’m looking forward to helping people like me recognize their power and harness it to create change starting at home.”  

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.