Celebrating BU’s African American Legacy

Washington events timed to opening of new museum


Alumni Celebration Breakfast panelists Cornell William Brooks (STH’87, Hon.’15), NAACP president, Richard L. Taylor (COM’71), former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and BU’s first Rhodes scholar, and Andrea L. Taylor (COM’68), president and CEO of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and a trustee of the University. Photo by Mary Calvert.

On September 24, President Barack Obama officially opened the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, promising a crowd of thousands on the National Mall that the $540 million museum, created by an act of Congress in 2003, would tell a “richer and fuller story” of who we are as Americans. The following morning, an important piece of that story was recounted at a BU alumni Celebration Breakfast at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, D.C., where distinguished leaders of the African American community recalled the legacy that drew them to Boston University and stressed the meaning of the moment in the continuing struggle for equal rights for all people in the United States.

Allison J. Davis (CGS’73, COM’75), a founder and former vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists, led a panel discussion at the Sunday, September 25, breakfast, where Cornell William Brooks (STH’87, Hon.’15), president of the NAACP, told the audience that the new museum’s exhibition on activism represents the history that is still “being played out in towns and communities—Tulsa, Charlotte, Flint, Ferguson.” Brooks was joined on the panel by Richard L. Taylor (COM’71), former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and BU’s first Rhodes scholar, and Andrea L. Taylor (COM’68), president and CEO of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and a trustee of the University.

h_butoday_20160924.153Guests at the National Museum of African Art celebration included (from left) Thomas Murray, David Kegler (CFA’88), Dasha Saintremy, Thomas Baynham (STH’15), Suzanne Hicks, and Pauline Jennett, (STH’05, SED’17). Photo by Joshua Roberts.

“All that has happened within the last two years underscores that the ideas and the ideals in the museum are real in the streets of America today,” said Brooks. “And it very much connects with what I learned at Boston University. Namely, that the intellectual tradition of activism, theologically speaking, gave me a sense of God, who can be felt in the streets, who can be felt in terms of social justice and civil rights litigation, and who can be felt in the midst of social justice advocacy. That wasn’t just about Martin Luther King and Howard Thurman back in the day. It’s about what we’re going through now, and what I’m so excited about, despite the tumult and the tension and the chaos, is that you have an entire generation that is hungry for moral philosophy. They’re hungry for social ethics. I can tell you this: at Ferguson, at two o’clock in the morning, in the street, I met students from the School of Theology. So what we are really affecting is a generation of activists and advocates. It’s an incredible moment.”

Richard Taylor told the crowd that there are very few non–historically black colleges and universities that could host an event so relevant to the opening of a museum of African American history. “The museum is a historical narrative covering generations, and Boston University has had African American students for generations, so we fit right in this conversation. We are running parallel to the museum,” said Taylor, who invoked the names of civil rights giants Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59); Howard Thurman (Hon.’67), former dean of Marsh Chapel and the first African American dean of a major US university; Barbara Jordan (LAW’59, Hon.’69), the first black member of Congress from Texas since Reconstruction; and Edward Brooke (LAW’48,’50, Hon.’68), the first popularly elected African American US senator. “So when you think about the narrative and the historic sweep of the museum, BU can go decade by decade and we fit right in. Boston University has a place at this table.”

Andrea Taylor, who began her career as a reporter for the Boston Globe (and took part in a student demonstration at BU instead of going to her initial job interview), said that she was “extremely disturbed by what was happening in this nation today.” Addressing the promise of the new museum, Taylor told the audience that “we need to help these young people—black, white, and anything else—understand the history of where we’ve come from so they will continue to create a better world, a world that everyone can live in and where everyone can thrive regardless of who they are and where they come from. This is a great opportunity, and we should all seize the moment and move forward.”

The panel discussion and breakfast, which opened with an invocation by Derrick Harkins (COM’80), senior vice president for innovation in public programs at Union Theological Seminary, and a bluesy rendition of “Hope for Us” by singer Alex Harris (SSW’05, STH’06), a founder of the nonprofit Arts Conservatory for Teens, followed the previous evening’s celebration at the National Museum of African Art, where more than 300 alums were greeted by Kenneth Elmore (SED’87), BU associate provost and dean of students, and Katherine Kennedy, director of the University’s Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground. Museum director Johnnetta B. Cole welcomed the alums and encouraged them to explore the exhibitions. President Robert A. Brown spoke about the University’s historic and ongoing commitment to diversity.

It was a theme that was personified by Andrea Taylor, who told the breakfast crowd that there are nine people in her family who have 10 degrees from BU, starting with an uncle who left West Virginia in 1935 because graduate schools in that state would not accept African Americans. He earned a JD at BU’s School of Law. In the 1940s, her mother, Della Brown Taylor Hardman (CFA’45), whose papers are now at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, earned a master’s in art, and her father, Francis C. Taylor (CFA’52), a master’s in violin.

“What my story represents,” said Taylor, “is how for African Americans who were seeking higher education, Boston University was an entry point. We should be very proud of that, and hopefully we can continue to be a beacon for African Americans in the 21st century who are seeking greater opportunities.”

Author, Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.