50th Anniversary of Africana Studies at Vassar
Friday, November 1, 2019
Thank you, Professor Tyrone Simpson and the full planning committee, who put this monumental event together. I am honored and delighted to be here with you, at this important moment in our history.
“I would go anywhere on Earth, do anything, to serve the black people in their struggle.” These are the bold words of Dr. Milfred Fierce, the first director of what was then called the Black Studies Program and is now called the Africana Studies program at Vassar College. Dr. Fierce started at the College on August 18, 1969, when he was officially appointed to direct the “experimental,” Black Studies program. He felt drawn to the position because of the students’ interest in fostering a strong relationship between the program and the African American community living in Poughkeepsie.
When speaking on the potential of the Black Studies program, Dr. Fierce had the following to share with the Poughkeepsie Journal:
“Black Studies at Vassar will not resolve the problems of black people in Poughkeepsie. However, given the first-rate progress we are making with joint appointment possibilities, given the efficacious degree of student involvement in Black Studies curriculum development and staffing, and given the level of involvement we are developing with the Poughkeepsie black community—the Black Studies program at Vassar College is two or three years away from becoming a model of excellence for Black Studies programs at small predominantly white liberal arts colleges”—and that is what it has in fact become!
Dr. Fierce was at the beginning of what now is a rich tradition…and his vision of a “model of excellence,” still animates Vassar’s aspirations and practices—as community-engaged learning courses and intensives (two curricular innovations), as well as dozens of student organizations now bring faculty and students to work with community-based organizations and people in Poughkeepsie regularly. With more than 200 community partners now, many participated in our priority and planning review last year to set Vassar’s 5- to 7-year goals; our new faculty orientation took place on Main Street at the Trolley Barn in Poughkeepsie; and we now have a collaboration with the County Transit system so that students, faculty, administrators, and staff may ride free with a Vassar ID, and the bus stops near campus regularly many times a day.
Outside of his role as a professor, Dr. Fierce acted informally as a counselor to many of the black students at Vassar, many of whom are in the room right now. When he was on campus, which was about half the week given that he was still enrolled in a PhD program in history at Columbia University during his time working at Vassar, he lived in Kendrick House. There, he served as a house fellow for the black students who lived there.
I want to recognize his work and success in beginning what is now a 50-year-strong Africana Studies program at Vassar—with 14 faculty on the steering committee, 9 additional participating faculty, 17 students who take a major or correlated in Africana Studies, and many, many others who benefit from the classes and events sponsored by the Africana Studies program.
Other speakers will describe all the efforts to get from the beginning to now, but for now, I wanted to shout out Dr. Fierce and, as well, the approximately 34 students who “took over Main” to bring urgency to the effort to create Black Studies, now Africana Studies.
We are so grateful to all of these courageous, smart, and visionary early leaders. And a special thanks to those who could make it today including (would you stand if you are here) Maybelle Anne Taylor Bennett (the first Black Studies major, I am told), Claudia Thomas (former President of Students’ Afro-American Society), Beatrix Fields, Geneva Kellam, Yolanda Sabio, Patricia Jordan, Dena Henderson, Sheila Wright, and who is from that first 34 people that took over Main is here? Please stand. And Dr. Fierce, would you stand as well?
To all: Please join me in giving them a warm welcome back to Vassar and our enormous admiration and thanks.
Finally, it should not be lost upon us that this conference is given in the name of Dr. Lawrence Mamiya, who led the Africana Studies program for years, and passed away earlier this year. Today we gather inspired by his legacy at a conference so appropriately named in his honor.
I am looking forward to the academic discourse the Africana Studies program has planned for this weekend and to engaging with as many of you as possible throughout the days ahead.
Thank you so very much!
—Elizabeth H. Bradley, President, Vassar College