Black History Month Features a Wealth of Celebrations
Students, administrators, alums, and others in the Vassar community enjoyed a plethora of events in observation of Black History Month—including exhibitions, a panel on STEM-related fields, and an update of the Buildings and Belonging project, focused on the history of African Americans on campus.
The commemoration began February 1 with a gathering at the Garden to Celebrate Black Lives hosted by the African Students’ Union (ASU), Black Students’ Union (BSU), and Students of Caribbean Ancestry (SOCA). Later that day, the College hosted “An Evening Celebration to Kick Off Black History Month,” produced by the Jeh Vincent Johnson ALANA Cultural Center and coordinated by Sharon Parkinson, Director of Multicultural and Affinity Engagement in the Office of Advancement. The event included performances and speeches from students, alums, faculty, administrators, and local community members; food and recipes from the African diaspora curated by alums and students; stations highlighting mental health; artifacts; and books written by Black authors.
Faculty engaged in the sciences shared their academic journeys to STEM and their current work with students during a panel hosted by the African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College (AAAVC), the Jeh Vincent Johnson ALANA Cultural Center, and the Office of Advancement. Panelists were: Assistant Professor of Chemistry Krystle McLaughlin, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Ed Buie, Assistant Professor of Earth Science and Environmental Studies Deon Knights, and alums Taishya Adams ’97, Ayo Opuiyo ’22, and Dennis Slade ’91. They agreed that students of color pursuing careers in STEM-related fields still face significant obstacles, but that the Vassar alum network, combined with dogged persistence, can help to overcome many of these barriers.
Throughout the month, Thompson Library hosted two exhibits highlighting the work of Black faculty and alums. Vassar librarians Gretchen Lieb, Deb Bucher, and Carollynn Costella selected books written by the late Professor of Africana Studies Lawrence Mamiya; current faculty members Eve Dunbar, Tyrone Simpson, Diane Harriford, and Mia Mask; and alums Jennifer DeVere Brody ’87 and Dr. Claudia Thomas ’71.
Professor Dunbar and Ronald Patkus, Head of Special Collections and Adjunct Associate Professor of History on the Frederick Weyerhaeuser Chair, curated an exhibit, Beauty Out of the Ashes, marking the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance. The exhibit included works of 13 different authors that provide a window into some of the key aspects of authorship during the Harlem Renaissance. The exhibition considered not only texts but also art, since the first editions of these works often included artwork on the dust jackets. The exhibition was conceived and co-curated by students who were enrolled in Professor Dunbar’s class Race and Its Metaphors this past fall.
Other events included an event at the Loeb, featuring students’ original films and poetry; the BSU’s annual Black Solidarity Dinner; and a lecture by writer and activist Ericka Hart on intersectionality and the ways in which interlocking systems of oppression impact the lives of the individuals navigating them.
During Black History Month, Buildings and Belonging, a multiprong project that highlights campus buildings and sites where African Americans have contributed to the physical, cultural, academic, and sociological history and development of the College, received updates. The College added plaques to five additional buildings and unveiled an augmented brochure and a website.
Buildings and Belonging was launched in 2018 thanks to the efforts of Karen Clopton ’80 P’19,’22, former co-chair of the AAAVC, who initiated the project. Other alums, student researchers, and faculty, administrators, and staff of the College also contributed to the effort. Plaques were initially placed on 10 buildings. This month, those first plaques were refreshed and new plaques were placed at Skinner Hall of Music, the Old Laundry Building, Lathrop House, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, and Ely Hall.
When the project began, Clopton said it was inspired by the placement of a permanent marker in front of Kendrick House, commemorating its status as both a cultural center and housing for African American students from 1969 to 1975. But the larger goal, she said, “is to make sure current, prospective, and past African American students feel not only welcome and included but [also] an abiding sense of belonging and ownership.”
Athena Davis ’20, who served as a student researcher for the project when she was a student, said she was pleased that Buildings and Belonging had become a permanent part of Vassar’s culture. “It highlights and demonstrates the significant roles Black people played in the history of the College,” Davis said.
Another alum who had contributed to the project as a student, Ifeacho Awachie ’20, said the initiative held truly special significance to him and other African Americans on campus. “When I became involved, I realized how easy it is for us to overlook the efforts of those who went before us,” Awachie said. “Buildings and Belonging provides a lasting memory and physical presence to the efforts of our predecessors.”