Good evening, and welcome!
Please join me in thanking our Reunion co-chairs, Sheryl Brissett Chapman and Rosetta Hillary, for their leadership in organizing this amazing Black Alumni Reunion!
And my thanks as well to all the members of the Steering Committee, Advancement staff, and people from offices across the University, for their hard work.
This Black Alumni Reunion has special significance, because it comes 50 years after 1968. And those of us who are old enough to remember know that the context of that year was unlike anything that has been seen since in this country.
Francois Hamlin, Professor of Africana Studies at Brown, is teaching a course called “1968: A Year in Review”. The course description says “1968 was…a global year of contention, confrontation and change, with consequences that continue to resonate into the present.”
And as we know well, college students were at the center of the change that occurred that year. Conversations among Black students at Brown centered on the dearth of courses on African American issues; the small number of Black faculty; and the slow pace of recruiting more Black students to the University.
These concerns were not being adequately addressed—much less understood—by the University’s administration and governing body. The minutes of Corporation meetings from the time suggest an administration that was sincerely baffled by what was occurring.
All of you know what came next. In December 1968, 65 Black students made a momentous decision, at great personal risk: boycotting classes until the University met a list of demands -- including more Black faculty and targets for increasing the percentage of minority students.
The Walkout unfolded, with the students accommodated at the Congdon Street Baptist Church. A student petition in support of the Walkout was signed by more than 2,800 students. After five days, an agreement was reached on several issues.
Steps were taken to recruit more Black students at Brown, and to enrich the curriculum with courses on African American history. Rites and Reasons Theater was created. The Transitional Summer Program—the precursor to the on-going Third World Transition Program—was established. And the first Black dean Dean of Student Affairs—William Brown—was hired in 1969.
I review this history to impress on you that the Walkout was much more than an inflection point in Brown’s history. It was a transformative leap.
And so, it is so right that we recognize this moment in the University’s history—the people who made it happen, the impact it has had over 50 years, and the meaning it continues to hold for Brown’s future.
I believe that this will be a powerful weekend, drawing forth a rich mix of emotions—pride in the past actions of Black students, excitement about the University’s progress, and impatience to make change happen even faster. And, I expect, deep concern about the very real threats to affirmative action that we face today.
But the sentiment I want to express this evening is gratitude.
Gratitude for the courageous actions of our earliest Black students—like when Inman Page delivered the Class Day Oration in 1870 and challenged his classmates to support all “…who are laboring, silently perhaps, but earnestly to extend the boundaries of knowledge.”
Gratitude to the Brown alumni who founded the Inman Page Council, and have moved its agenda forward over the years.
Gratitude for the trajectories of Black activism, advocacy and agency that emerged at different times over the decades, educating our community and prompting hard conversations.
And gratitude to the many Black alumni who have lived consequential and meaningful lives that reflect the very best of Brown.
This gratitude has inspired some members of our community to set right past wrongs, by recognizing Black alumni who have made outstanding contributions in their lives.
An example: Mayo “Ink” Williams, who came to Brown in 1916, was an outstanding track and football start, took a leave of absence to fight in WWI and, after graduation, went on to become one of only three African Americans to play in the early years of the National Football League, before Black players were banned from the NFL in 1926.
Williams also became the most powerful Black figure in the recording industry, producing blues legends like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tampa Red, and Papa Charlie Jackson -- and in 2004, he was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
And, in just an hour or so, the announcement that Mayo Williams has finally been inducted in to the Brown Sports Hall of Fame will be made at halftime of the Harvard-Brown game.
I expect that while we are gathered at the Black Alumni Reunion this weekend, we will learn of other Black alumni in whose lives we find inspiration and for whom we are grateful.
Now, a moment ago, I referenced the detail work of change carried out by 1968-era students and faculty at Brown -- the planning, organizing, coordinating, protesting, negotiating, and, yes, living daily with inequality and injustice.
Let me be clear: we don’t get to the detail work of this era -- the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan -- without their courage. There is no DIAP without their courageous work.
I say this because the Walkout and everything that followed helped Brown reclaim two vital strands of its mission and legacy.
First, it rekindled the notion of Brown as an institution that, from its earliest days, attracted people who questioned inequality and injustice.
And second, it underscored what we live by today: that diversity is a cornerstone of academic excellence at Brown.
Tomorrow morning, we’ll have an opportunity to consider the fruits of our recent work, during a conversation about the DIAP with Provost Richard Locke; Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, Tricia Rose; and Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity, Shontay Delalue.
I have to say that although I recognize the hard work that lies ahead, I am very proud of the accomplishments of the past 3 years since the DIAP was introduced.
But right now, we’re all in for a very special evening of reflection on this powerful moment in Brown’s history, through the eyes of many who were there.
This extraordinary panel will take us back to that moment, and answer our questions:
What did it feel like to find pockets of courage and hope, at the Congdon Street Baptist Church, in the signatures on the Brown student petition, or in the pages of the Brown Daily Herald?
What did it feel like to be uncertain of how the Walkout would go, to not to know if the University would take any punitive action against the 65 students?
What did it feel like to stand up for your beliefs and principles, and to take action that still reverberates, fifty years later?
The lessons we can learn from the panel are as relevant today as they ever were.