History

The Howard Thurman Center was founded by Dean Emeritus George K. Makechnie in 1986 to preserve and share the legacy of Dr. Howard Thurman. Howard Thurman was a man of religion, a world-renowned educator, a philosopher and a poet, and Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953 to 1965. Thurman spent his life working to break barriers of divisiveness that separate people based on race, culture, religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity.

In 2000, the Howard Thurman Center was made a department of the Dean of Students office and its mission expanded. The Thurman Center is BU’s cultural hub, and, unlike many colleges and universities that have separate centers based on race, Boston University’s Howard Thurman Center does not. The Thurman Center is intentionally inclusive and emphasizes the importance of stepping outside your comfort zone to build relationships and share experiences with others. The Thurman Center is a place where cultural expression in all of its forms is embraced and encouraged.

Through an array of culturally based programs, lectures, discussions, films, events, and resources, the center spreads Thurman’s belief in the unity of all people and his philosophy of the Search for Common Ground. Howard Thurman believed the Search was a two-fold journey. The first step is one of personal self-exploration. He would say:

“When you can go deep down inside yourself, really know who you are and are secure in who you are—then—you can find yourself in every other human being.”

The second step, he believed, is that:

“we all have as human beings to want to be with others—the desire to be part of a community.”

Thurman believed:

“…that meaningful and creative shared experiences shared between people can be more compelling than all of the faiths, fears, concepts, ideologies, and prejudices that divide; and if these experiences can be multiplied and sustained over a sufficient duration of time, then any barrier that separates one person from another can be undermined and eliminated.”

In the spring of 2004, the University built a new location for the center in the George Sherman Student Union. This state-of-the-art space serves as a learning center, social space, and focal point for all students, faculty, and staff at Boston University.

The space design was intentional. There are many glass walls and windows because it welcomes students, who want to see and be seen. The amazing serpentine glass wall that frames the offices is engraved with Thurman’s Common Ground message, reading, “The Search begins…” The glass curvature represents Thurman’s Inward and Outward Journey philosophy in the Search for Common Ground. Many events are held in the Great Room, including thought-provoking discussions, educational lectures, exhibits, films, parties, receptions, and celebrations that allow students to share their cultural identity. It offers a comfortable and safe environment. The reading and listening room, intended to be a tranquil place filled with a collection of books representing many cultures of the world, is dedicated to one of BU’s greatest alums, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

While the center’s philosophy and work are founded on the legacy of Howard Thurman, it is also supported by the legacies of many great people—trailblazers like Anna Howard Shaw, who focused on the root causes of social injustice, poverty, and women’s suffrage in America. She was the first woman to graduate from BU’s School of Theology, in 1878. Later, concerned with sickness and physical healing, she was among the first women to graduate from Boston University’s School of Medicine in 1885.

The center is also influenced by Mohandas Gandhi of India, who led his country to its independence through the philosophy of Ahimsa—nonviolence. After his meeting with Gandhi in India in 1935, it was Howard Thurman who brought Gandhi’s message of nonviolence to the United States. Howard Thurman also instilled Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while King was a graduate student at Boston University. And, the center’s work is certainly influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the drum major for freedom and human rights for all, who used Gandhi’s nonviolence philosophy and Thurman’s unity message to drive the American Civil Rights Movement. These legacies and countless others inspire the programs, services, and resources of the Howard Thurman Center.

The gems of the center are the Student Ambassadors. They are dedicated young people who are committed to Dr. Thurman’s legacy of breaking barriers and building community. They come from a variety of races, religions, cultures, and places. Formerly called the Associates in the Search for Common Ground, the name was changed to the Thurman Student Ambassadors in 2005 to give them a more contemporary and shorter name.

In 2005, BU created an undergraduate scholarship in honor of one of its greatest alums, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Martin Luther King, Jr., Scholars are also an important student component of the center. They, like the Student Ambassadors, are committed young people who have a strong sense of community and strive to make a difference in the world. Howard Thurman continually counseled: You must stay true to your own identity. You must be “at home [intimately at home] somewhere, in order to be at home [comfortably at home] everywhere.”

The continuous goal of the Thurman Center is to create a Living Common Ground Community on this campus. Students are invited to make the center their “home away from home,” while experiencing self-discovery through interaction with others. Using Thurman’s words, we advise:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

A Timeline of the Center

1983 An informal Howard Thurman Fellowship was created by Dean Emeritus George Makechnie. It presented commemorative programs to the University and the Boston community at large.
1984 The Howard Thurman Archive was given to Boston University by his widow, Sue Bailey Thurman.
1986 The Howard Thurman Center was established. It adopted the Fellowship and coordinated Thurman-related activities on campus. It also offered outreach programs for inmates at Norfolk State Prison for men (MCI-Norfolk) and Framingham State Prison for women (MCI-Framingham). The center provided these institutions with books and audio and video equipment.
1993 Student leaders in the Thurman Center proposed the creation of a student organization that would reflect the Thurman legacy and deal with contemporary issues affecting group relations. They were called Associates in the Search for Common Ground.
2000 The Thurman Center was made a department of the Office of the Dean of Students and the first paid director was appointed.
2003 The center moved to the George Sherman Student Union.
2004 Design plans for a new, state-of-the-art Thurman Center were developed.
2004 An assistant director and administrative secretary were hired.
2005 The Center moved to its current location on the lower level of the George Sherman Union. The Center obtained a large, open space and several meeting rooms, including the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Reading Room and the George Makechnie Meeting Room.