AAAVC’s Triennial 2024: Reconnecting and Remembering

The African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College (AAAVC) Triennial XIV, held on campus April 12–14, marked the 40th anniversary of the group, created in 1984 to engage Black graduates and students. Triennial is a “homecoming,” of sorts, for Black alums and an opportunity to connect not only with each other, but with students, faculty members, administrators, and staff. Members were eager to meet in person, as the last Triennial in 2021 was held online due to concerns about the COVID pandemic.

On Friday afternoon, AAAVC members and others celebrated the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College (AAVC) Spirit of Vassar Award recipient Pamela Harris ’92. Before accepting the award, Harris was interviewed by Maybelle Bennett ’70 about her trajectory from a low-income student to activist to documentary filmmaker and (currently) CFO at the Community Foundation Sonoma County. Her lens as an activist has colored many of her choices; she said, “I attended my first protest in the womb. My father was part of Freedom Summer and worked on voter registration drives down South.” Harris is particularly focused on economic inequality—her documentary film Waging a Living addressed the struggles of minimum-wage workers and their families. She strives to use her position in finance to help “those not in the center of the quantitative framework” to become more financially literate and more active in their financial lives.

Three people standing and smiling, two clapping and the person in the middle is holding an award.
As part of the weekend, the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College (AAVC) honored Pamela Harris ’92 (center) with the Spirit of Vassar Award. Photo: Kelly Marsh

As members reflected on 40 years of AAAVC, they also looked back with gratitude on beloved friends who had passed since the 2021 Triennial. Saturday morning bright and early, alums headed to the Thompson Library to hear about A Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a book AAAVC will help to preserve in honor of Dr. June Jackson Christmas ’45–4—a member of AAAVC and a three-time trustee of the College. The gesture was made in conjunction with Vassar’s Adopt-a-Book program. Ron Patkus, who heads the College’s Archives and Special Collections, explained that the autobiographic text had been dictated by Truth to a scribe and printed around 1850; it was likely sold as part of a lecture series that took Sojourner Truth around the country.

Group of people standing over a table with a book on it listening while one person talks.
Ron Patkus, who heads Vassar’s Archives and Special Collections, discussed A Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which AAAVC will help to preserve in honor of Dr. June Jackson Christmas ’45–4. Photo: Jesse Untracht-Oakner

After the book talk, alums proceeded—in song—across the bottom of the Quad to dedicate a bench and tree to Dr. Christmas. She had been a noted psychiatrist and educator and had led New York City’s mental health agency under several mayors. In recognition of her contributions to the field of behavioral health, the tree and bench were placed on the lawn of Metcalf, the center of Vassar’s mental health services. Eric R. Wilson ’76, who helped plan Triennial as co-chair of AAAVC, said a Dawn Redwood tree was selected “because it grows rapidly and retains its pyramidal shape throughout life. It’ll indeed resemble a Christmas tree.” Several of Dr. Christmas’s family members were able to attend the dedication, including her daughter, Rachel, and son Gordon, who later presented the the College with gifts via the June Jackson Christmas and Beatrix McCleary Hamburg Funds. (Dr. Christmas and Dr. Hamburg had become lifelong friends after attending Vassar as two of the first students openly acknowledged to be Black.)

Two people seated on a bench, one person holding a portrait.
Rachel Christmas Derrick and Gordon Christmas, the daughter and son of Dr. June Jackson Christmas’45-4, at the dedication of a tree and bench in their mother’s honor. They hold a portrait of their late brother, Vincent. Photo: Karl Rabe

On Saturday, lunch was dedicated to two leaders in the Africana Studies Program—Professor Emeritus Norman Hodges, the first tenured Black professor in History and Africana Studies, and Professor Emeritus Milfred Fierce, who had fought to establish the Africana Studies (previously Black Studies) program at Vassar. Maybelle Bennett ’70, Beatrix Davis Fields ’72, Richard Roberts ’74, and Eric Wilson ’76 offered remembrances. The next day, Rev. Dr. Robert Bryant Jackson ’77 presided over a memorial service in the Alumnae House Living Room, during which AAAVC remembered other members who had died.

Four people standing arm in arm and smiling.
At a luncheon during Triennial, Maybelle Bennett ’70, Richard Roberts ’74, Eric Wilson ’76, and Beatrix Davis Fields ’72 offered remembrances of Professors Norman Hodges and Milfred Fierce, influential leaders in Africana Studies. Photo: Karl Rabe

The weekend also featured a reception at the President’s House, workshops, panels, student-alum activities, a casual alum networking event, a tour of the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve and Poughkeepsie Farm Project, and other activities, including a business meeting at which the next AAAVC co-chairs were elected.

Three people dancing. One person has their hands raised while the two others are looking down.
Alums boogied down to the sound of DJ Terrence Harris ’01 at a Wakanda-themed dance party Saturday night. Photo: Kelly Marsh

There was plenty of time for revelry, too. Many enjoyed Game Night. And on Saturday night, a gala dinner was followed by a “Wakanda Dance Party,” where everyone was encouraged to wear Black Panther-themed outfits. Terrence Harris ’01 spun the tunes that kept AAAVC members on the dance floor.

This Triennial’s theme was “Storytelling: Creating Our Future, Celebrating Our Past,” and there were many opportunities to share. Several members of AAAVC sat with Vassar podcast host Wesley Dixon to speak about their Vassar experiences as part of the College’s Oral History Initiative. There was also a conversation between Africana Studies Director Diane Harriford and Kiana Moore ’02, who co-directed the documentary The Beauty of Blackness, which won the Tribeca Film Festival’s TribecaX Award for Feature Film (it’s currently streaming on HBO Max). Moore’s film followed executives at Fashion Fair, the first national makeup brand that catered specifically to women of color, as it relaunched its brand amid cultural shifts and increased competition. Topics ranged from Moore’s trajectory from psychology major to filmmaker to the issue of colorism and the importance of self-esteem.

Close up of a person holding a microphone and speaking. One person with their back turned to the camera is listening.
Africana Studies Director Diane Harriford interviewed Kiana Moore ’02, co-director of the documentary The Beauty of Blackness. Photo: Karl Rabe

Other highlights included a marketplace in the College Center, where alum authors and entrepreneurs offered a range of products and literature on Saturday, and an “Author-Entrepreneur Roundtable,” where they spoke of their work on Sunday. One of the exhibitors, Gail Singleton Taylor ’84, who owns Humanitas World Preparatory, LLC in Brooklyn, NY, said the marketplace was her favorite part of Triennial. “I was so thankful to share the word about my tutoring service and online prep school,” she said. “In addition to educating the other alums about my services, I made invaluable connections with the other entrepreneurs and authors.”

Person sitting at a table smiling at the camera while another person writes on a piece of paper on a table.
During Triennial, authors, entrepreneurs, and musicians introduced alums to their work at a marketplace in College Center. Photo: Karl Rabe

During AAAVC’s business meeting on Saturday, members elected co-chairs who will serve for the next three years. Newly elected Nicole Savage ’08, an educator based in Washington, D.C., had been Senior Assistant Director of Admission and Co-Coordinator of Multicultural Recruitment at Vassar after graduating and has remained connected to alums across generations, but says one of her goals will be to connect with and involve younger alums.

Gwen Salley ’81, who will serve a second term after co-chairing with Eric Wilson ’76, said, “Triennial was very rich and a reunion like none other. We brought Black alums together on Vassar’s campus, some of whom had not returned since graduation. There was networking, laughing, creating new memories, telling stories about our treasures, including Dr. Christmas, Dr. Hodges, and Dr. Fierce, telling our new stories with Kiana Moore, and participating in the Vassar Oral Histories Initiative.”

Two people smiling and holding hands while cutting a tabled cake together.
At a luncheon, AAAVC Co-Chairs, Eric R. Wilson ’76 and Gwen Salley ’81, cut a cake celebrating the 40-year anniversary of the group. Photo: Karl Rabe

Over the next three years, she said, AAAVC will focus on growing engagement. “We want AAAVC to be seen as a resource to the College,” she concluded. “There are so many more alums who could be enjoying Vassar’s campus and contributing—not only financially but as volunteers. Our goal is to reach those talents and bring them back into the fold for Vassar.”

View a gallery of images from Triennial on Flickr.

April 24, 2024
Alums Spotlight