Good evening, and welcome!
I want to begin by thanking you, for the gift of this Reunion. In the last 24 hours, I have been so moved by everything -- the joy of rekindled friendships, the power of the conversations on the range of Black lived experience at Brown, the pride in each other’s journeys in life.
Let me thank our Reunion co-chairs, Sheryl Brissett Chapman and Rosetta Hillary for their leadership in organizing this brilliant celebration. Thanks as well to all the members of the Steering Committee, Advancement staff, and people from offices across the University, for their hard work to shape this reunion.
And of course, I want to thank Sam Mencoff, our Chancellor, for being here this evening. He is joined by a number of current Corporation members—could you please stand?
Finally, I want to acknowledge two of our local heroes—public servants who are collaborators and partners:
Nirva LaFortune AM’19, Assistant Director of the Scholars Programs and Diversity Initiatives in the office of the Dean of the College, and a member of the Providence City Council, serving Ward 3.
And Nicole Alexander-Scott MD, MPH’11, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, who shares my own passion for eliminating health disparities.
Tonight, we celebrate a rich and profound Black legacy, in all of its resilience in the world, and in all of the ways it is woven into the fabric of Brown University.
And there is possibly no better way to celebrate Black legacy at Brown than to hear from our keynote speaker, Brown President Emerita Ruth Simmons, and current president of Prairie View A&M University.
When Ruth was inaugurated as the 18th president of Brown, she arrived with an abiding trust in the belief that all things are possible. That she was the granddaughter of slaves and the first African American president of an Ivy League institution lent that trust enormous credibility.
Premier institutions like Brown, she believed, must honor that trust -- in part by ensuring that they are accessible to bright, capable students from all backgrounds.
In her ‘legacy’ interview with the BAM in 2012, she noted that “…if you’ve been mired in poverty at any juncture and you get to know the capabilities of the people in very poor communities, you’re the first person to recognize that there is as much talent and brilliance in that community as in any other.”
Ruth’s enlightened thinking changed the environment at Brown. It gave further voice and power to advocates who followed in the footsteps of those who participated in the 1968 walkout.
And it opened space for a bold and long overdue examination of Brown’s ties to slavery, carried out by the Committee on Slavery and Justice.
As other colleges and universities grapple with their histories in this regard, Brown is routinely cited as the institution that had the courage to be first. That courage came from Ruth Simmons.
The Brown of today and tomorrow owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the foundation that all of you worked so hard to build. Yes, there is much to be done, but we have come so far in the last 50 years.
And in my time as president, it has been an honor to advance this work, as we have through the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan.
Tone is set at the top and, today, I am proud that over 18% of the members of the Brown University Corporation are Black.
I am proud that my Cabinet now includes more Black members than when I arrived. And that our Dean of the Graduate School and our Dean of Admissions identify as Black.
And, in the past three years, we have hired 14 new Black faculty members. People like:
String theorist and National Medal of Science recipient Jim Gates.
Juliet Hooker, a political scientist who recently won a major award from the American Political Science Association for her new book on “Theorizing Race in the Americas.”
And RaMell Ross, whose film “Hale Country This Morning, This Evening” was the winner of a US Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Vision at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
These faculty members, and others, are attracting outstanding students. It is no surprise that more than 31% of incoming domestic doctoral students identify as members of historically underrepresented groups.
But, far more important than the numbers, is the rising confidence that this campus is a place where everyone feels like they belong, and a place where students and faculty from all backgrounds want to be.
Yes, there is much more to do, but there is a palpable sense of momentum on the Brown campus.
We are tracking the numbers—people, survey data—to assess our progress. But beyond the numbers, symbolic actions matter as well.
Consider the power of the Slavery Memorial, just outside my office on the Quiet Green. The sculpture, erected on the recommendation of the Committee on Slavery and Justice, stands as a permanent memorial recognizing Brown’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.
And it stands as a constant reminder of a university community that aspires to be better.
Sometimes, symbolic action takes the form of recognizing the legacy of accomplished Black alumni who might have fallen into obscurity. Like we did last night, when it was announced that J. Mayo Williams, ‘21 would be inducted into the Brown Sports Hall of Fame.
For those of you who were not at last evening’s dinner, Mayo Williams was one of the first three Black players in the newly-formed NFL in 1920, along with Paul Robeson and Fritz Pollard, ‘19. Perhaps more important, Williams was the preeminent producer of Black R&B records in the first half of 20th century, and was elected to the Blues Hall of Fame in 2004.
Sometimes, symbolic action may take the form of renaming a campus building.
And that is what I’m going to announce, right now.
Tonight, I am delighted to tell you that the Brown University Corporation has voted to rename a College Hill building in honor of two iconic African American alumni: Inman Page and Ethel Robinson!
Inman Page was born into slavery, but he sought liberty and opportunity. He found them at Brown. Inman went on to teach, mentor, lead and break down barriers in higher education as the president of several colleges. Today, he is the namesake of Brown’s Black alumni council.
Ethel Robinson broke a color barrier and a glass ceiling when she graduated from Brown in 1905. Ethel went on to teach English at Howard University and was instrumental in founding the first Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.
And she has relatives—descendants of her younger sister, Cora—who live in Providence and are with us this evening. Please join me in acknowledging Michael van Leesten and his family!
Together, Inman Page and Ethel Robinson embodied the faith in learning, knowledge and understanding that has animated Brown for generations.
Now let’s talk about which campus building will be renamed in their honor, effective in the spring semester of 2019!
Given the historical and academic significance of the renaming, we undertook a thoughtful, deliberate process -- in consultation with alumni who are here this evening -- in choosing the right building to bear the Page-Robinson name.
We wanted a building at the heart of campus, one that every student, faculty member and staff member uses on a regular basis. And one that serves as a center of classroom activity, teaching and learning, the core of the Brown experience.
We wanted a building that was recently renovated, in great shape…and re-nameable. And so, the building we settled on is the J. Walter Wilson building!
As many of you may know, J. Walter Wilson—the building—was built as a biology laboratory, and so it was appropriate in 1962 to name it for J. Walter Wilson—the person—who was a beloved professor of biology.
But, J. Walter Wilson is no longer a laboratory building. It is now Brown’s main building for University and student services, located right across Waterman Street from Faunce Arch. It houses the financial aid office, the office of international student and scholar services, the mail center, the Chaplain’s Office, classrooms and seminar rooms, and more.
Everyone knows, and uses, what will become, starting in the spring semester, Page-Robinson Hall!
Friends, let us welcome Page-Robinson Hall to Brown University!
Yesterday, some of you may have toured the fascinating civil rights exhibit over at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. The multi-media exhibit, Unfinished Business: The Long Civil Rights Movement, examines the history of African American political organizing traditions.
The title of the exhibit resonates today. Because even as we break bread together this weekend and honor a defining moment in Brown’s history, disparities persist. Divisions resurface. And we are once again reminded that there is unfinished business to attend to.
The Black Alumni Reunion not only strengthens my resolve to do so. It strengthens my faith in this community, that it will find new ways foster racial equality and social justice for all.
The unfinished business of tonight, though, is welcoming Ruth Simmons. And like you, I am very much looking forward to hearing her talk about Black legacy at Brown!
Thank you all so much!