Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, May 25, 2024

Developing an institutional memory at Tufts: African-American history at Tufts

The tree with a plaque honoring African-American alumni on April 29.

For most Tufts students, time on the Hill lasts only four years, and their memory of Tufts only includes the people they met and the experiences they had within that time. However, some students and faculty — both current and late — have devoted their time to looking back decades, even centuries, into Tufts’ history to integrate the people and experiences of the past into Tufts' current collective memory.

Professor Gerald Gill, who passed away on July 26, 2007, spent his career educating the Tufts community about the history of African-Americans at Tufts. Since then, many Tufts students and faculty from the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy (CSRD), Africana Center, Africana studies and Tufts Digital Collections and Archives, just to name a few, have worked to continue his work of encouraging greater awareness of African-American history at Tufts as part of the broader Tufts experience. According to those who have read this history, knowing the African-American history of Tufts has the power to inspire activism and community among each generation of students.

To encourage others to understand this history and honor the physical markers of the impactful Black presence at Tufts, Gill put together a photo exhibit that chronicled African-American History at Tufts called "Another Light on the Hill: A History of Black Undergraduate Students," according to a Feb. 4, 1988 Tufts Journal article. The exhibit was first displayed in 1988, then again in 1989, and was expanded and displayed again in 2003, according to the Tufts University Art Gallery website. The exhibit included photos, yearbooks and newspapers that portray eras and individuals important to Black student life at Tufts. In the article, Gill said that this was the first time that anyone had documented the history of Black students at Tufts, which he believed should be an interest of the entire community. He added that most of the history he had uncovered had been forgotten or never really known.

“The lessons of history are always important to understanding the present,” Gill said in the Tufts Journal article. “Part of what I hope this exhibit accomplishes is giving today’s students some context by which to judge the current state of race relations both here at Tufts and nationally.”

In addition to the exhibit, Gill's documentation work helped form the Tufts/Medford Black Freedom Trail, a path of on-campus sites that signal important stories and moments in African-American history at Tufts. These include the Capen House, the Lena D. Bruce (E ’92) and Anita Y. Griffey (LA ’89) Bench and Goddard Chapel Plaque.

"It makes the Black presence at Tufts a natural part of the landscape,” Pearl Robinson, professor of political science, said in a Mar. 7 Daily article.

Another important part of the significant community history marked by the trail is the Royall House and Slave Quarters. Even though Tufts was founded in 1852, African-American history at Tufts goes back as early as 1737, when the Royall family — the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts — built an estate on current Tufts land, according to a March 7 Daily article. This shared piece of land sits on the east side of College Avenue across from the gym, according to Peter Gittleman, co-president of the Royall House Association. The Royall House is open for tours and still sits between Tufts’ gym and Medford Square.

“We hope visitors walk away with a deeper understanding of slavery in the North,” Gittleman told the Daily in March. “So many people think of slavery as a southern issue, but in the 18th century, slavery was quite common in the northern states. The Royalls were certainly on an unusually large scale … but many New Englanders were involved in some aspect of slavery.”

Kendra Field, interim director of the CSRD and an assistant professor of history and Africana studies, described how Tufts' relative distance from the period of slavery, its convergence with the abolitionist movement and its Universalist founding make the university better known for its connections to abolitionism.

One of these connections is a memorial stone commemorating prominent Medford abolitionist family, husband and wife George and Mary Stearns, whose estate was a waystation on the Underground Railroad between 1850 and 1860. The memorial, which is located by Cousens Gym, describes the estate as a "haven for slaves seeking freedom," according to a Feb. 9, 2015 Tufts Now article.

The legacy of slavery continued to be present nationally at at Tufts, with Gill's research of Black historical presence on campus showing the university to be a microcosm of national social trends in many ways.

4/29/16 – Medford/Somerville, MA – Professor Gerald Gill's article "Another Light on the Hill" about his photo exhibit along with the records of his time at Tufts are displayed in the Tufts Digital Collections and Archives on April 29, 2016. (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily) (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily) Professor Gerald Gill's article "Another Light on the Hill" along with the records of his time at Tufts are displayed in the Tufts Digital Collections and Archives on April 29. (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily)

According to Gill's article, “Another Light on the Hill: Black Undergraduates and Tufts,” which appeared in the sesquicentennial celebration edition of Tufts Magazine, Black students left Tufts during the Great Depression because of financial setbacks, and fewer Black students enrolled in comparison to the decade before. This decreased enrollment of Black students was seen in colleges and universities nationwide.

Decades later during the civil rights movement, students of all races questioned the small Black student population at Tufts, according to Gill. In the fall of 1964, psychology professor Bernard Harleston established the Committee on Negro Education to encourage recruitment of Black students.Harleston was the first African-American tenure-track professor, and South Hall will be renamed as Bernard Harleston Hall this fall in his honor, according to a May 2 Daily article.

Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, students at Tufts were spurred to create a student organization called Students Concerned About Racism (SCAR) whose goals were to increase recruitment of Black students and to raise money for scholarships, according toGill. As a result, the Black student population increased by 700 percent from 1966 to 1972.

4/29/16 – Medford/Somerville, MA – The plaque commemorating African American alumni is displayed in Goddard Chapel on April 29, 2016. (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily) (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily) The plaque commemorating African American alumni is displayed in Goddard Chapel on April 29. (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily)

In addition to low Black enrollment, the African-American community at Tufts had to deal with other instances of discrimination and violence. According to Gill, in the early 1950s, there was concern about the racially exclusionary practices of most fraternities and sororities on campus. It wasn't until 1963 that all campus fraternities and sororities adopted non-discriminatory clauses.

Junior Andrew Wofford, a history major who works at CSRD, also documented a 1975 hate crime committed against members of the Carpenter House, originally the African-American Cultural House, by the Delta Upsilon (DU) fraternity. Past documents from the Tufts University Police Department (TUPD) and the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs, as well as open letters from representatives of the African American Society as well as Head Resident of the African American Cultural House Hilda Holloman, describe the lack of concern TUPD had for the Carpenter residents and the light punishment of the hate crime's perpetrators, according to Wofford's Nov. 16, 2015 Tufts Postscript article on the incident.

In addition to documenting discrimination, Gill also highlighted Black students' historic involvement in Tufts activities and organizations. Black students in the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s who were involved in student government, drama productions and choral groups, student publications and numerous campus organizations. In the 1970s, Black students served on Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate and starred or co-starred in campus productions as well.

"While many on the Tufts campus viewed Black students as separatists, Black students remained as involved, if not more involved, in campus-wide activities as in earlier decades," Gill wrote in the Tufts Magazine article.

Edward Dugger Jr., Class of 1941, is one example of an accomplished athlete, student and student leader of color at Tufts. Dugger received national titles as a sprinter and hurdler, served as secretary of the senior class and was a member of the Senior Honor Society for Men. A plaque in his honor was rededicated to him last month at an event co-hosted by the Africana Center and Athletes of Color, according to an April 24 article in the Daily.

2016-04-23-Medford/Somerville-Tufts University-Ellis Oval-Tufts community members and members of Mr. Dugger's family gather to rededicate a plaque for Edward Dugger Jr. (Alex Knapp / The Tufts Daily). (Alex Knapp) A portrait of Tufts alumnus and student athlete Edward Dugger Jr. (A ‘41) at a gathering to dedicate a plaque in Dugger’s honor on April 23. (Alex Knapp / The Tufts Daily)

Katrina Moore, director of the Africana Center, said that there is importance in recognizing these significant students like DuggerMoore said she was happy to have many Black alumni come back to Tufts to speak to current students at the Africana Center.

"I think that was really helpful for students to make that connection that there were students that were here before them, and to hear the stories of the things that they were involved in," Moore said. "They talked about students that were in the Senate, and all the things they, the students, were involved in helped the students feel like they can feel a sense of belonging here, and they encourage the students to really make this a place that they want to be for four years."

Part of how the Africana Center connects students to the African-American history at Tufts is through the GeraldGill Reading Room, a study space named after Gill. According to Moore, the reading room is not only a quiet place for study, but it also holds a small portion of Gill's photo exhibit.

"We always use the opportunity when we’re meeting with freshmen to talk about Gerald Gill and show them the exhibit so that they understand there were lots of students here before them, and the sacrifices they made and the things they were involved in that make it easier for students today to be here," Moore said.

Tufts faculty and students today have worked to continue Gill’s legacy of research and documentary of the university's African-American history. Wofford said he worked with Field to organize an alumni panel at Tufts for the Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora’s (RCD) symposium on “Social Movements and the Black Intellectual Tradition” last November. He also worked on a photo exhibit of African-American history that was on display at both the symposium last fall and the Africana Distinguished Lecture in February.

Wofford said that his interest in working with CSRD and the symposium started when he took Field’s class, Family Histories and American Culture, last spring. According to the course description, this course allowed students to develop the skills and perspective to perform scholarly research on family histories including their own. Through this class, Wofford researched his father’s family history of slave ownership and their involvement on the Confederate side of the American Civil War, which opened his eyes to a different side of American history.

2016-05-13-Medford/Somerville-The Royall House and Slave Quarters were home to the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts and over twenty enslaved Africans (Alex Knapp / The Tufts Daily). (Alex Knapp) The Royall House and Slave Quarters were home to the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts and over twenty enslaved Africans. (Alex Knapp / The Tufts Daily)

In addition to looking through Tufts archives to find documents on the 1975 hate crime, Wofford also worked with Field on research over the summer and took her summer session class, Black and Native New England.

Recent efforts from students like Wofford and historians like Field to establish a stronger memory of African-American public history reflects what Director of the Tufts Digital Collections and Archives Dan Santamaria identifies as a wider movement in the archivist world. Santamaria has been working with Field and her students, including Wofford, on multiple projects related to African-American history at Tufts and in the surrounding area. He said that there are efforts in the archivist world to think more critically about the information being offered to archives, and the implications for marginalized groups when they are not adequately represented.

"Without that representation, it’s harder for people to make those connections to the past, that there were people here before them grappling with similar issues, that they are part of communities that stretch back for decades,” Santamaria said.

Making those connections as a community is part of public history, which Wofford described as the manner in which a community or an institution decides to present its collective history in a publicly accessible manner.

Wofford referenced #TheThree Percent movement of Black students at Tufts last semester as an example of the power of public history. The numbers on historically low population of Black students at Tufts — eight percent in 2003 and down to three percent this year, according to a Nov. 18, 2015 Daily article — were part of what inspired activism around the campus.

Field also connected #TheThree Percent movement with the power of Tufts’ institutional memory, or passing down the narrative of people and events at Tufts, in order to understand how Tufts has evolved as an institution. For Field, one purpose of building Tufts' institutional memory is to help students fill the voids they often perceive in their history, in racial justice or in their communities.

“If we’re only three percent of the student population, that feels one way,” Field said. “But if we’re three percent but then we have African-American alumni from [as far back as the 50s] visit every few weeks, it might not feel quite as small. You might feel like you’re part of a bigger community — part of a history, which can do a lot.”

Santamaria said that the Tufts archives have plans to work more with students at Tufts, specifically student groups that are active on campus, to help document the issues they’re engaged with, as well as research the history of those issues.

Moore said she has plans to continue recognizing African-American history at Tufts with the Africana Center, including working to make more students aware of the Black Freedom Trail. Additionally, the new pre-orientation program Students' Quest for Unity in the African Diaspora (SQUAD) for incoming Black students will introducing first-years to this history, Moore said. She also hopes to create an event that will focus on Black leadership in Boston that would bring community organizers, politicians and other Black leaders to campus.

2016-05-13-Medford/Somerville-Tufts University-A plaque honoring the Stearns estate, which served as a waystation for people escaping slavery from 1850-1860 (Alex Knapp / The Tufts Daily). (Alex Knapp) A plaque honoring the Stearns estate, which served as a waystation for people escaping slavery from 1850-1860. (Alex Knapp / The Tufts Daily)

Field believes that, whether they know it or not, every student at Tufts has a direct connection to the university's African-American history.

“Everyone has a direct tie to this history because you’re here,” Field said. “I think this is about knowing where you’re spending these four years, and the possibilities for place-based learning are immense here.”