Claflin University Founders' Day Convocation
141st Founders' Day Address: Orangeburg, South Carolina

by Robert A. Brown | November 21, 2010

President Tisdale, distinguished guests, members of the faculty and student body, thank you for this honor and for welcoming me into your community.

It is a privilege to come from Boston University to be here in Orangeburg and to attend the Founders' Day ceremony of Claflin University. I am originally from Texas and by some accounts a "southerner" at heart, so it is wonderful to be back in the warmth of your hospitality this afternoon.

Claflin: the name resonates on both of our campuses. At Boston University, we have a Claflin Hall. The Claflin Society honors some of our most generous benefactors. A portrait of Lee Claflin looks out over our Trustees at each of their meetings. And the signature of Governor William Claflin adorns our University Charter, signed in 1869.

There are many common elements that we share in our founding and in our early years, not the least of which are fundamental values and principles. We can and should be proud of those, just as we should be proud of the men and women who guided our early years, as founders and leaders, as teachers, and as students.

There are a few differences, of course. Geography is one: I noticed that you held a golf tournament as part of your Alumni Weekend festivities. In November, we would never dare to do that in Boston. With our unpredictable New England weather, we wouldn't know whether to stock golf balls, umbrellas, or snowshoes.

And there is the matter of scale. You have a total of around 1,800 students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Our largest freshman dormitory has space for 1,800 students - and that building houses only around 40 percent of our more than 4,000 freshmen!

Differences of scale aside, it is our commonalities that stand out and that will dominate my remarks this afternoon. One, which we share with many other institutions, is our founding as Methodist-affiliated universities. Many outstanding colleges and universities in America were organized and built during the nineteenth century by Methodists, and the growing commitment of the Methodists of that era to education is, in itself, an interesting story.

Early in the nineteenth century, most Methodist ministers learned their theology on the job, while riding a circuit from town to town and camp to camp. As they traveled, they would study from a prescribed list of books they carried with them, learning about theology, metaphysics, grammar and rhetoric, and other subjects deemed necessary and appropriate by church leaders.

The Bible was of course among their books, along with John Wesley's "Plain Account of Christian Perfection." After a few years of reading and a practical self-guided apprenticeship, the circuit-riding junior preachers would be tested by church elders, and if they passed they would be licensed to administer the sacraments.

There was some disagreement over how ministers should best be educated. Some church leaders thought their ministers ought to undergo a more formal training, while others felt that if one was called by God to preach, then the time it would take to pursue an education on a campus somewhere was time taken away from preaching the word of God.

Over time, those favoring a more formal education won out, and between 1829 and 1850, nearly 400 Methodist schools were opened. That trend continued, and thus Claflin and Boston universities were born.

(We should also note that during that period, 1829 to 1850, nearly 150 schools either closed or dropped their affiliation with the Methodist church. We should be glad that we survived this attrition!)

Another commonality shared by Claflin University and Boston University, perhaps the most important one, is a commitment to equality of opportunity. From the beginning, both institutions have been open to all, regardless of race, gender, or religion.

That there is a category of distinguished institutions called "Historically Black Colleges" is a reminder of the difficult, shameful role of race in America. Race, ethnicity, religion, and gender could each serve as a bar to opportunity through all too much of our history as a nation. It must have seemed to the Claflin family and others who started schools in the years after the Civil War that the only way to provide an education to black Americans was to provide them with a new brand of institutions where they could study and thrive.

That our two universities, each founded in 1869, opened with the promise of access to all - not just to blacks, not just to women, not just to whites, but to all - shows that our founders meant to deliver on the promise of America long before it was possible, and long before it became a reality, at most institutions. For that, all of us at Claflin University and Boston University can be justly proud and grateful.

Well into the twentieth century, some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in this country practiced a quota system that limited or blocked entrance for students of color or for religious minorities. But not at Claflin University, and not at Boston University, because of the promise made by our founders.

In the 1950s, more than half of all Ph.D.s earned by black Americans in this country in religion and philosophy were awarded by Boston University. Martin Luther King, Jr. was among those students.

At a time when Jews faced limits that were imposed by quotas, any academically qualified applicant was welcomed at BU without consideration of his or her religious preference. Some people back then attempted to insult BU for this by referring to us as "B-Jew". That was an ugly phrase for the bigotry and anti-Semitism behind it. That Jews and people of all religious faiths were welcomed on our campus, then and today, is indeed a matter of pride to us.

Thinking of this, I am reminded of the speech John Kennedy gave in West Berlin during the Cold War, in June 1963. Berlin, deep in East Germany, was divided by the newly erected Wall and threatened by Soviet tanks. Standing on a platform in front of Rathaus Schöneberg, West Berlin's city hall, President Kennedy expressed his solidarity with the free people of that city when he uttered the unforgettable phrase, "Ich bin ein Berliner" - I am a citizen of Berlin. He closed his speech by declaring: "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin."

Attempting to denigrate BU for welcoming Jewish students, or black students, or Catholic students, or Asian students, or immigrant students, is no insult to us. As President Kennedy might have said: We are all Jewish; we are all black; we are, simply, men and women, come together - in Boston or in Orangeburg - to study, to learn, to conduct research, to teach, and for our students to become outstanding citizens and leaders of America and the world.

This is the heritage left to us by the Claflins and others who joined with them in founding our two universities.

Now, there is another difference between Boston University and Claflin. I hope no one minds my pointing this out, and that no one is offended by this, but, frankly, of the two universities, we are the older one.

Hearing this might make you think of twin siblings arguing over which one is older, and which one is better looking. One twin stands staring and says, "See? Clearly I'm better looking." And the other twin says, "You're looking at me, not a mirror!"

There is, actually, another way of looking at our age as an institution, and in that there is another interesting coincidence, which I will come to in a moment. When Boston University was incorporated in Massachusetts in 1869, it was not built from scratch. Rather, it was built on a foundation that had been set, in Vermont, 30 years before.

Let me tell you that story: Just as Boston University was incorporated by Lee Claflin, Isaac Rich and Jacob Sleeper in 1869, thirty years before another group of Boston Methodists business leaders wanted to create a school to educate Methodist ministers. This was a part of the movement in the Methodist Church that I spoke about a few moments ago. The school they formed in 1839 was located not in Boston, but in Vermont.

This school took shape at a meeting in the Bromfield Street Church in the heart of downtown Boston. There, the organizers agreed to create a school devoted to the formal education of ministers.

The organizers knew of a Methodist secondary school in Newbury, Vermont that educated young men and women, known as the Newbury Seminary. The administrators and teachers of the Newbury Seminary had ample space and a willingness to share it with the new school, motivated in no small part by a need to augment their budget. The new school formed by the Boston businessmen would be known as the Newbury Biblical Institute.

The two schools shared space and faculty in an arrangement not unlike that of Claflin in its early years when it provided a basic education to students who were not yet prepared for college-level work.

An early graduate of Newbury Seminary, from before the founding of the Newbury Biblical Institute, and who would return there as a minister in 1843 when the Institute shared space with the Seminary, was a fellow named Alonzo Webster. You know him as the first president of Claflin University!

The Newbury Biblical Institute eventually moved, first to Concord, New Hampshire, and then, in 1867, to Boston. Lee Claflin, Isaac Rich and Jacob Sleeper were by then its trustees, and they dreamed of expanding the mission of the school, of turning it into a university. Two years later, they began to make that dream manifest with the 1869 charter, signed by Massachusetts Governor William Claflin, which created Boston University. The original Newbury Biblical Institute, after two moves and a few name changes, became the School of Theology at Boston University, and has ever since been considered our founding school.

Thus, although Boston University was incorporated in 1869, we actually trace our origins to 1839. Because of this, BU celebrated its centennial in 1969, and only 20 years later celebrated its sesquicentennial - its 150th anniversary - in 1989.

There were people who accused BU of practicing fuzzy math or some kind of anniversary shenanigans. How can a school observe its 150th anniversary only 20 years after observing its 100th? (Isn't history wonderful!)

The simple truth is, we trace our origins to 1839, but we have been a university, as has Claflin, since 1869. I am not sure if we will ever fully resolve our inner concerns over our true age, but I can assure you that we are proud to share our 1869 founding as a university with our friends and brethren here at Claflin.

With this said, when the opportunity came to carve our founding date in a large piece of red granite - our school color - in the middle of Commonwealth Avenue at the gateway to our campus, we chose 1839 and our Methodist roots as the ideological germ that led to Boston University.

I would like to take a few minutes today to tell you about another Boston business leader from that era, a man with whom you probably are not familiar, but a man who reached beyond business to have an effect on both education and emancipation. His name is Amos Adams Lawrence, and I have come to know a great deal about him because I happen to live in a house he built in 1850 in the town of Brookline, near the border with Boston on land adjacent to what would become the campus of Boston University.

Lawrence was a descendant of one of the first settlers of Boston. For generations, the Lawrence family lived as farmers just northwest of Boston. His grandfather was a Minuteman who rallied to arms on the first day of the American Revolution and who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. His father was the first in the family to leave farming and engage in business, in the buying and selling of raw materials and finished textiles for the new mills that were being built in the region at the dawn of the American Industrial Revolution. Amos, who was born in 1814 and educated at Harvard, followed his father into the same business, establishing his own firm and representing some of most successful mills in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Though much younger than the leaders of the Boston business community, he quickly gained acceptance among that group, which included men such as Lee Claflin, because he was industrious and successful.

Amos Lawrence took three trips as a young man that had a formative effect on his views:

While at Harvard, in the early 1830s, he visited Washington where he was guided about town by his cousin, a Congressman from New Hampshire named Franklin Pierce, who later served as the fourteenth president. Pierce brought him to meet President Andrew Jackson at the White House. (It was a very different era, when a Congressman could just drop in at the executive mansion for a casual conversation. Today, a letter to the White House does not even clear security for two or three weeks!) Of greater significance for Lawrence than meeting the president, however, was the time he spent observing the House in action. On the day he was there, Massachusetts Congressman and former president John Quincy Adams introduced a bill to ban slavery in the District of Columbia. Rather than a debate, he faced a firestorm of anger and vitriol from Southern members of Congress.

In 1840, he travelled to Europe, in part to see the mills in England, and while there he also visited Ireland. There, he saw people living in wretched poverty, heavily burdened by English taxes. He wrote to his father that such suffering was enough to make him support the idea of a revolution to overthrow the system.

And he found the same conditions on a trip to the American South, where the cotton processed in New England mills was grown and picked by slaves. He saw slaves toiling in the fields and he saw ads posted for the sale of men, women, and children. Not surprisingly, Amos Lawrence became an ardent Abolitionist.

When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 effectively ended the Missouri Compromise, the balance of free and slave states in Congress was threatened. Some in New England organized to move people to Kansas in the hope that these settlers from the North would vote to keep slavery from the new state.

Amos Lawrence became one of the leaders of this effort. He was an officer of a group called the New England Emigrant Aid Company, and he was also the principal funder of the effort.

When settlers who were sympathetic to slavery threatened violence against the settlers from the North, emigrants wrote to their backers seeking arms with which they could defend themselves.

Fearing that any move to provide guns and ammunition through the Emigrant Aid Company would cause some of its supporters, especially Quakers, to end their involvement in the venture, Lawrence provided funds directly from his own accounts to pay for and to ship rifles to Kansas.

Some of those rifles were used by John Brown to defend the Kansas settlers. A few years later, Lawrence and other Boston abolitionists welcomed Brown in their homes and offices, calling him "that old Kansas hero." Not long after that, Brown led the famous raid on Harper's Ferry, where he was captured, tried, and hanged. Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis publicly stated that Amos Lawrence, having purchased the rifles used by Brown in his raid, must have been complicit in treason. That the guns clearly had been purchased for the self-defense of Kansas settlers was sufficient to keep Lawrence free from any charges.

When the Civil War broke out, he volunteered to serve in the Union Army. The Governor of Massachusetts said that, given his age and his business skills, he could better serve the cause by helping to organize and equip volunteer regiments. One of those that he helped to organize was the famed Massachusetts 54th, one of the first regiments made up of free black volunteers. The story of the 54th Massachusetts was immortalized in the movie Glory. You will recall that the 54th saw its first action on James Island here in South Carolina, and gained its greatest fame not far from here, in Charleston, for leading the assault on Fort Wagner.

Lawrence is remembered today for more than his business success and his commitment to the Abolitionist movement. He is not only remembered, he is memorialized for his generous support of education.

He donated the money to establish the University of Kansas, which is located - not surprisingly - in the city of Lawrence. In Wisconsin there is Lawrence University. Lawrence Academy is one of the oldest boarding schools in America; it was named Groton Academy until it changed its name to recognize gifts from Amos Lawrence and his brother. There are many institutions that benefited from Amos' gifts.

Those of you familiar with your own institutional history will recall that your second president, Edward Cooke, had previously served as president of Lawrence University in Wisconsin, and he certainly knew Amos Lawrence. You might be surprised to know that there is a Claflin professorship at Lawrence University, but we really shouldn't be too surprised.

Those who played great roles in our founding were part of a community of people, people such as Lee Claflin and Amos Lawrence, who shared values, who were committed to fundamental principals, and who worked, often in league with one another, to accomplish important things.

I have dwelt today on matters and occurrences of days gone by. I don't usually do that. I enjoy history immensely, but I also like to look forward. I appreciate what those who came before us have done, and my impulse is to build on that as we look to the future.

It is important to understand our past. Learning about the people who founded, shaped, and nurtured our institutions offers not only a window on the past, but also a reflection on our selves. This is so because we choose to be a part of these enduring institutions. The spirit of Claflin University and the spirit of Boston University comes to us as a legacy of our founders, as a trust for us to protect, and as an obligation to carry forward, with our own imprint.

Our universities have survived difficult times, they have grown, adapted, and evolved. Now it is up to all of us to protect them and to see that they flourish in the years and decades ahead.

I am glad that, after 141 years, our institutions, both heirs to the Claflin legacy, will at last have a tangible connection as we launch a formal program of student exchange. When our students travel between Boston and Orangeburg to study as visitors on our campuses, they should feel equally at home on either campus. After all, we are sibling universities, each 141 - or so - years old. And now, it is time once again to look forward to what we can do to build on our legacies and to make our universities the best they can be.

Once again, thank you for having me here today and for allowing me to share in your Founders' Day celebration.