Vassar Cultivates an Enduring Celebration of Black Lives

Photos by Deborah Swartz

The seeds for a living tribute to Black lives began to germinate at Vassar in the wake of a racial incident on the campus and the nationwide outrage that followed the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. On a chilly, sun-splashed April afternoon nearly two years later, members of the Black Students’ Union (BSU) joined with dozens of others in the Vassar community to dedicate the Garden to Celebrate Black Lives on a patch of ground adjacent to the Aula.

Eight members of the Black Student Union recited Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” at the dedication of the Garden to Celebrate Black Lives.
Eight members of the Black Student Union recited Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” at the dedication of the Garden to Celebrate Black Lives.

Following the half-hour event, which included the recitation of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” by eight BSU members and singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by BSU member Arianna Brown ’22, Wendy Maragh Taylor, Associate Dean of the College for Student Growth and Engagement, said making the garden a reality had been a true team effort. “I’m just thrilled for the students who pushed this through and to President [Elizabeth H.] Bradley and Dean [of the College] Carlos Alamo-Pastrana for all their support,” Dean Maragh Taylor said. “I’m especially pleased that our seniors who worked hard on this project could be in this space before they leave, to see and experience this tribute to Black lives.”

A tribute to Black Life. “Still I Rise” Maya Angelou. April 2022
A bronze marker marks the occasion of the dedication.

One of those seniors, Chelsea Quayenortey ’22 recalled the work she and others had done to make the garden a reality. “It took a while for this to come to fruition,” said Quayenortey, chair of the BSU Political Action Committee and a French and Economics major from Old Bridge, NJ. “But when Dean Wendy told us it was underway and I saw the dirt being prepared for the garden, I almost cried. It’s amazing, standing here today. It’s a breathtaking feeling.”

President Bradley thanked Dean Maragh Taylor for her “inspiring leadership” in spearheading the project. “Today is the culmination of a year and a half of work,” Bradley said. “It is a recognition of the contributions of Black people to the College, both past and present. Often those contributions are invisible, but today we are making them visible through this gorgeous garden. Thanks to all whose contribution and creativity are making the Vassar community better.”

Dean Alamo-Pastrana noted that some of the original discussions about the Garden centered on memorializing those who had died, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. “But the students realized that a memorial about death would not reflect the meaning and complexity of Black life,” he said. “This garden will serve as a reminder that Black and African American students are here, they are a part of us, and they are loved.”

Dean Wendy Maragh-Taylor
Dean Wendy Maragh Taylor spearheaded the project, working alongside students to make it a reality.

Tyrone Simpson, Associate Professor of English and Director of the Africana Studies Program, said he envisioned the Garden to Celebrate Black Lives as a place where Black students and others who sometimes feel marginalized “can bring our doubts and sadness and return to being who we are. We welcome this important piece of property and salute the College for giving us this space.”

May 2, 2022
Campus Initiatives