Race & Racism in Historical Collections

The Race & Racism in Historical Collections Working Group was formed in Fall 2021 to work with the Vassar Library to describe, contextualize, and provide access to Vassar’s history, as represented in our historical collections, ethically and honestly.

Project Complicating Founder’s Day

Most recently we hosted Complicating Founder’s Day to coincide with Founder’s Day which invites students to engage with the complicated history of this College celebration and to imagine more inclusive narratives of Vassar’s founding and “founders.”

A very large room with wood-paneled walls and windows. An event is taking place here. In the foreground, a person with glasses and black hair in two buns is writing on a whiteboard, they’re back to the viewer. The whiteboard has a handwritten title at the top reading “What should future founder’s days look like?” Below it are written suggestions in different handwriting. In the background, a group of people sit at a table.

“I now have a deeper understanding of Vassar’s history; I have a true appreciation of the pioneers who have made contributions despite its history of racism and xenophobia.”

—Isabella Zumbolo ’26

Founder’s Day, a memorial to Matthew Vassar held on the Saturday closest to his April 29 birthday, has been a part of Vassar’s social fabric since it began as a surprise party for the founder in 1866. Originally a somewhat solemn occasion, it morphed into a fun-filled event by the early 20th century.

Get involved

If you’re interested in helping to organize this Founder’s Day event, please email Melanie Maksin and Emma Santiago.

The College recently has begun to confront the starkly racist and xenophobic caricatures that were often a part of the celebration after Vassar librarians revealed a discovery of more than 100 glass plates of old photographs that show students, faculty, and administrators in blackface and other forms of racist masquerade.

Three days before this year’s Founder’s Day, the Engaged Pluralism Race and Racism in Historical Collections Working Group hosted an event titled “Complicating Founder’s Day” that challenged students, faculty, and administrators to contemplate this aspect of Vassar’s history. About 100 students, faculty and staff attended the event in the Villard Room.

Read more about “Complicating Founder’s Day”

Project Library Statement

In Spring 2022, we worked with the Library to develop a content statement for the Digital Library that clearly and forthrightly describes the presence of harmful materials within these collections. Members of our group co-taught, with Engaged Pluralism Director Jonathon Kahn, an intensive in Fall 2022, “Facing the College Archive.”

[a description of what this was: the statement, maybe some notes on the thinking behind it]


“Working with EP has strengthened my own sense of belonging to the campus community. It is a joy to get to work with colleagues and students across departments and disciplines, and to see how the amalgamation of each person’s expertise and perspective makes a broad and lasting impact. I've learned so much about the culture of our campus—and found a truly safe space to critically examine and evaluate it—through our conversations in the Race and Racism group. From my experience, belonging is realized in EP bit by bit—through each frank and deeply respectful conversation about difficult realities. We build trust over time, and I sense how the belonging I've found in the Race and Racism group feeds back into my work at the Loeb, grounding the work I do day to day (which can sometimes feel siloed) in a larger feeling of being invested in the campus community. ”

Jessica Brier, Curator of Photography at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center