10 Black BU Alums (Besides MLK) Who Left Their Mark on the World
10 Black BU Alums (Besides MLK) Who Left Their Mark on the World
Leaders and mentors across the spectrum of society, from politics to the arts to civil rights and from education to medicine to sports
In honor of Black History Month, Bostonia looked back through the years to identify 10 Black Boston University alumni who left an indelible mark on the nation, and on society. The list could have been much longer, and it certainly could have included the most noteworthy of them all, Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59), but for this list we wanted to reach beyond King for other figures deserving of remembrance for their contributions, their challenges overcome, and their lasting legacies.
And for those wondering why Howard Thurman (Hon.’67), dean of Marsh Chapel from 1953 to 1965, the first Black dean at a mostly white American university, is not on the list: Thurman was an honorary degree recipient, but not a BU alum.
1. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (MED 1864) 1831-1895:
The first Black woman to graduate from a US medical school, Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the definition of the word trailblazer. Born in Delaware, she moved to Charlestown, Mass., in 1852, and shortly after the Civil War she went to Virginia to help former slaves who had been refused medical treatment by white doctors. Her legacy continued when she published a medical book (one of the first Black physicians to publish a book) that had clear messaging about women’s health, a rare guide at the time. Crumpler’s strong Boston ties intensified when she worked as a nurse in Charlestown before enrolling in the historic New England Female Medical College, which later merged with Boston University. Melody McCloud (CAS’77, MED’81), founder and medical director of Atlanta Women’s Health Care, has spent years researching and promoting Crumpler’s legacy. And although Crumpler’s house is a stop on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, it took more than 125 years after her death for a headstone to be erected on her previously unmarked grave in Hyde Park, thanks to the efforts of another BU alum, Vicky Gall (Sargent’73, Wheelock’83), president of the Friends of the Hyde Park Branch Library.
2. Solomon Carter Fuller (MED 1897), 1872-1953:
Perhaps one of the lesser known, yet most impactful, BU alums, Solomon Carter Fuller was the first Black psychiatrist in the United States. After completing an internship at Westborough Insane Hospital, later Westborough State Hospital, he became a pathologist and joined the BU School of Medicine faculty. A few years later, he joined four other research assistants at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital in Munich, Germany, to work under Alois Alzheimer. As the Washington Post reported in a 2021 feature on Fuller: “As a pathologist, Fuller performed numerous autopsies, which enabled him to make observations—none of them more pivotal than the neurofibrillary tangles and miliary plaques he encountered while examining the brain tissue of deceased people who had had dementia. Fuller reported on the significance of neurofibrillary tangles five months before Alzheimer did, and his discovery identified a physically observable basis for this affliction, which so decimated the memories of its victims. Ultimately, the results of Fuller’s research helped to confirm that the condition known as Alzheimer’s was not the result of insanity but rather a physical disease of the brain. He also went on to publish the first comprehensive review of this disease.” Over time Fuller’s white colleagues were paid more and promoted over him, ultimately driving him to retire from BU. Late in his life, Black Psychiatrists of America established the Solomon Carter Fuller Program for aspiring Black psychiatrists, and today the American Psychiatric Association honors one person for pioneering work to better the lives of Black people with its annual Solomon Carter Fuller Award. The Medical Campus Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center was named in his honor.
3. Elma Lewis (Wheelock’44) 1921-2004:
Born in 1921 in Roxbury, Mass., Elma Lewis was not yet 30 years old when she began changing young lives. Her journey started in 1943, when, using money she earned by acting in local theater, she graduated from Emerson College. A year later, she earned a master’s in education at BU. And in 1950, just 29 years old and driven by her own childhood experiences, Lewis opened the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury to help promote arts and communication education for Boston’s Black youth. She went on to become a bright light in the city across the arts, education, and civil rights. In 1981, she became one of the first women to receive a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.”
4. Edward Brooke (LAW’48,’50, Hon.’68) 1921-2003:
After editing the BU School of Law Law Review in the late 1940s, Edward Brooke ran his own practice in Roxbury until 1962, when he was elected Massachusetts attorney general—the first Black attorney general in the country. “My God, that’s the biggest news in the country,” none other than President John F. Kennedy (Hon.’55) said at the time. But Brooke was not done breaking barriers. In 1966, on the heels of gaining public attention for his aggressive pursuit of the Boston Strangler and repeated prosecutions of corrupt politicians, Brooke became the first popularly elected African American US senator. He went on to serve two terms, and was always an outspoken advocate of free speech. “Dissent and protest are essential ingredients in the democratic concoction,” he once said. “Without them an open society becomes a contradiction in terms, and representative government becomes as stagnant as despotism.
5. Ida Lewis (CGS’54, COM’56) b. 1934:
The field of journalism has always struggled with hiring and promoting people of color. It’s not known as a diverse profession, so when Ida Lewis rose from the Paris correspondent for several publications in the 1960s, including Life and the New York Times, to the first editor-in-chief of Essence magazine in 1971, it was a big deal. Shortly afterward she founded Encore, a newsmagazine exploring African American perspectives on global issues, becoming the first Black woman to publish a national magazine. And that was even bigger. (She later took over as editor of Crisis, the NAACP magazine.) “The world is getting smaller, and we’re all in it together,” she told BU Today in 2005. “I think it’s important that all students cultivate an open mind. If you’re going to report, you have to keep your pulse on human beings.”
6. Grace Bumbry (CFA’55) b. 1937:
In the arts, awards don’t get much bigger than the Kennedy Center Honors. In 2009, internationally celebrated mezzo soprano Grace Bumbry was among those honored by the Kennedy Center. Her voice, sultry and wide-ranging, may have defined her on stage, but off stage she was equally influential as a world-leading vocal teacher who created the Black Musical Heritage Ensemble. Bumbry broke a color barrier at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany in 1961, when the grandson of Richard Wagner cast her as Venus in a performance of the opera Tannhäuser, and she received 42 curtain calls. Just 24, she was the first Black singer at the festival, and it caught the attention of Jackie Kennedy, who later invited her to sing at the White House. “It was an enormous success, and a wonderful feeling that my efforts were not in vain,” Bumbry said of her Bayreuth performance.
7. Enoch Woodhouse (LAW’55) b. 1927:
One of the last surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first all-Black World War II combat flying unit, Enoch Woodhouse told Bostonia in 2021: “Blacks were told, and it was publicized, that they lacked intelligence. We were thought to be skilled for and were utilized only in support positions. That means truck drivers, laundry people, oil fillers for airplanes. Even though we were trained in basic training, when we got into the army, we were all relegated to service functions.” The Tuskegee Airmen changed that forever, as they were instrumental in integrating the US Armed Forces, and it helped earn Woodhouse and others the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the US Congress on individuals or institutions for distinguished achievements and contributions. President George W. Bush presented Woodhouse his medal in 2006, calling it “a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities.”
8. Barbara Jordan (LAW’59, Hon.’69) 1936-1996:
Barbara Jordan broke a glass ceiling, plain and simple. More than one, actually. Angela Onwuachi-Willig, BU School of Law dean, says this about Jordan: “She was the first African American woman elected to Congress from the South, and she was a really outspoken advocate for justice. She was one of the names my mother always invoked around the house as someone I should look up to, to see all the possibilities I had here in the United States.” Jordan was not only the first African American woman to represent Texas in Congress, she was a member of the House Judiciary Committee, and she gained national notoriety after a fiery speech to the committee in 1974 supporting the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. Two years later she was the first African American, and first woman, to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention.
9. Richard Taylor (COM’71) b. 1949:
What do student-athletes look like? They look like Richard Taylor, who was a captain of the BU men’s basketball team his senior year and also the University’s first Rhodes Scholar. Never a star player, he was always a valuable reserve. His coaches said his statistics didn’t define him; instead, his energy, on-court leadership, and defensive tenacity made him invaluable. Off the court, though, is where he has shined through the years. He did significant research on MLK. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism at BU, he went on to get a bachelor’s in philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford, then a master’s in business administration and a JD from Harvard. His education and leadership earned him spots on the BU Board of Trustees, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston board of directors, and the Boston branch of the NAACP. And he served as Massachusetts secretary of transportation under Governor Bill Weld, overseeing a number of landmark construction projects, including rail service from Worcester to Boston and the Ted Williams Tunnel.
10. Ruth Batson (Wheelock’76) 1921-2003:
Long before the famous Boston busing crisis of the 1970s, Ruth Batson stood up before the Boston School Committee in the early 1960s and challenged it to do better on segregation, arguing that there was a direct link between schools with poorer facilities and those with high Black enrollment. Batson was never one to hold her tongue, becoming chair of the New England Regional Conference of the NAACP, and eventually the first Black woman on the Democratic National Committee and the first woman elected president of the NAACP’s New England Regional Conference. She also held numerous roles at BU, including director of the School Desegregation Research Project and associate professor in the School of Medicine’s division of psychiatry.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included an incorrect photo identified as Rebecca Lee Crumpler. That photo has been removed.
Nice article! Readers might also be interested in learning a little about John Wesley Edward Bowen (STH’1885; GRS’1887), who was born a slave and went on to become the first African-American to graduate with a PhD from Boston University as well as an early civil rights leaders in Atlanta: https://www.bu.edu/sth-history/prophets/john-wesley-edward-bowen-1885/
This is a wonderful article. So informative! I hope you make it a Black History Month tradition and do it every year.
Great article, but actress Alfred Woodard should be included.
She was one of the hard cuts we had to make. We had a list of more than 20 names we started with, a number of deserving people were left off, including Alfre Woodard.
I hope actor, director, producer and activist Bill Duke was art least on the short list.
On Grace Bumbry: She attended BU one year (1955) then transferred to Northwestern University. She herself clarified this clearly when she was a guest of the HGARC some years ago. A mezzo then later a soprano (Shirley Verrett did the same thing). One ask why? Well, there are less goodies for mezzo roles in opera whereas singing soprano you DEFINITELY do have the whole world in you hands!!! As for Bayreuth in Wagner’s”Tannhauser” the conservatives or the “traditionalist” were completely against her yet at the end she had them eaten out of the palm of her hands.
Tomorrow is Leontyne Price 95th birthday!
Thank you for the article and highlights of these outstanding people!
Just wanted to add Dr. Mildred Fay Jefferson, first Black Woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, first Woman to graduate in Surgery from Harvard Medical School, first female surgeon and doctor at Boston City Hospital. Dr Jeffersons career has not been highlighted often due to her activism and support of the pro-life organizations in Massachusetts and throughout United States from mid- 1970’s until her death in 2010.
There’s nothing wrong with going to school across the river, but this is Boston University’s alumni magazine, and the list is of BU alums.
When I gave tours and interviews at 121 BSR, I used to say “we put the Dr. in Dr. Martin Luther King”. Thanks for focusing on all the other trailblazers BU has had a role in educating!
So glad you provided showing what Boston offered in a positive way. I had the opportunity to dance for Elma Lewis definitely a force to be reckoned with, would do it all again. Thank you.
I accept the Guidelines.
I would recommend Richard Yarde (1939-2011), a gifted artist of national renown whose work is now on display in a major exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art (November 2021 through April 2022). Richard grew up in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston and received bachelor and master degrees from BU’s School for the Arts in the 1960s. His works are featured in many major museums, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
What a wonderful collection, and recap, of just some of BU’s Black alumni. They, and others, left their positive mark. Thank you. –Melody T. McCloud, MD (BU/BUSM)
Enjoyed the article which served as a reminder of the wonderful history of B.U. which began as one of the few institutions open to women during its founding days.
A nice follow article might be to highlight current alumni who are adding to the legacy of these outstanding alum. Rel Dowdell comes to mind for his outstanding documentary “Where’s Daddy?” which addresses one of the most compelling issues facing low income African American families today.
Wonderful articles!! I learned a lot!! Some of the Great Black Americans I knew about,but not all of them! Still,Facinating!! As a Cape Verdean American,I identify with all of them. Thank You very much!! God Bless!!
Rich Taylor is certainly admirable but my choice from that era would be Fred Washington, my RA from ’67-68, a fine gentleman and better baller.
BU always shined as the place that accepted the different, the unique, the odd, the underdog, the misunderstood, the conflicted, the morally ambiguous, the visionary, the gorgeous, the liberal, the radical, and the conservative in thought and being. BU was one of the first doors open for woman and minorities in the earliest points in our American history, and for that still I remain a BU advocate and its place in our national heritage.