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Howard Thurman Center will dedicate new facility, honor BU civil rights figure

Katherine Kennedy, director of the Howard Thurman Center (right), talks with Latarsha Williams (LAW’05, COM’05). Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

This story was published in the BU Bridge on March 22, 2005.

With lots of space, light, and windows, including a large serpentine-shaped glass wall inside, the new home of the Howard Thurman Center provides visitors with a feeling of openness. According to Katherine Kennedy, the center’s director, the architecture reflects the philosophy of Thurman (Hon.’67), dean of Marsh Chapel from 1953 to 1965.

“This looks like an open and welcoming place, and it is,” says Kennedy. “I wanted it to say, from the moment you walk up to the glass doors, ‘This place is accessible. Please come in.’ I tell students that the center can be their home away from home.”

This year the Howard Thurman Center and the Office of Multicultural Affairs merged to make multicultural programming at BU more efficient. The center, which also seeks to preserve Thurman’s legacy of transcending racial, cultural, and gender differences, will commemorate its recent move to the GSU lower level with a celebration on Thursday, April 28, from 4 to 6 p.m.

The reception will feature a dedication to the legacy of Thurman and Sargent College Dean Emeritus George Makechnie (SED’29,’31, Hon.’79), who founded the center in 1986 and was its director until 1999. Known affectionately as “Dean George,” he died on March 22 at the age of 98. The festivities will also include appreciative acknowledgement of people who were instrumental in the relocation of the center, especially Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore. “We’re also going to show appreciation for members of the BU family who designed and built this place: the Physical Plant tradespeople,” Kennedy says.

In a side room, Kennedy points to the cherry millwork bookshelves, window moldings, and a console that holds a television with a six-foot-by-eight-foot screen. “The carpentry crew really outdid itself,” she says.

Howard Thurman Photo by BU Photo Services

 

The dominating feature in the center, however, is the curved glass wall near the entrance, bearing the phrase “The Search Begins.” Also etched on the wall are these words of Thurman’s: “For this is why we were born: people, all people, belong to each other, and he who shuts himself away diminishes himself, and he who shuts another away from him destroys himself.”

“The quote really speaks to what the Howard Thurman Center is about,” says Kennedy. “This is a place where we all are welcome — no matter what race, culture, ethnicity, gender, religion — you come here with an open heart and open mind.”

Kennedy’s involvement in the cause of racial equality goes back decades. In 1974, as a young Boston Globe reporter, her coverage of Boston’s busing crisis helped the newspaper win the Pulitzer prize for meritorious public service. Two years later, she went to the University of California at Berkeley to establish a minority journalism program.

In 1984, she returned to her native Boston and worked as an advocate for the rights of professional athletes, and then in 1991 became an alumni officer at the BU Office of Development and Alumni Relations. In 1999, Vice President and Dean of Students Norman Johnson asked her to succeed Makechnie as director of the Howard Thurman Center.

Makechnie, Thurman’s friend of 30 years, shared with Kennedy stories and writings about the famous African-American theologian and philosopher. “Dean George was my mentor,” she says. She was intrigued by the fact that although Thurman was a key figure in the civil rights movement, he was unknown to many African-Americans of her generation (see sidebar).

Among the Thurman Center’s programs is Common Ground (the term is culled from the title of a Thurman book), a yearlong community-building experience throughout the academic year consisting of receptions, workshops, seminars, discussions, and presentations.

“Howard Thurman believed that the search for common ground among people was a twofold journey — an inward journey of self-exploration, and an outward journey,” says Kennedy. “He said that when you go down deep inside yourself, be confident about who you are, then you can find yourself in every human being. The outward journey represents the desire he believed everyone has — to want to be with other people. He called it ‘building community,’ and that’s what we do here.”

Recent events at the center have included a Martin Luther King Day celebration and a discussion entitled Culture: Does Everyone Have One? exploring the definition of culture. However, Elmore says, “because the Howard Thurman Center is such an inviting and versatile space, we’ve had a few departments and student organizations hold events there.” For example, a wine-tasting and a free showing of the film Sideways, sponsored by the Student Union Programming Council, took place at the center on April 1.

“This is a great place,” says Kimberly Foxx (LAW’05). “One of the purposes of the center is to celebrate diversity, and I notice that the students who use the center are a diverse group, so I think this aim is being accomplished.”