Remembering, reflecting, reuniting: 50 years after the Black Student Walkout

More than 700 alumni and guests shared joyous hugs and raised thunderous applause at Brown's largest-ever Black Alumni Reunion.

In 1968, 65 Black students walked off Brown's campus and into history. Fifty years later, the University invited the community to commemorate those landmark steps and discuss the path forward.

On September 21-23, 2018, more than 700 alumni, students, faculty, and guests convened for a full weekend of events to reflect on that milestone, engage in dialogue on Brown's progress toward diversity and inclusion, and be part of an historic gathering 50 years in the making.

Here is some of what they saw, heard, and felt:

Bridging past and future

An exhibition and two intriguing panel discussions started off the weekend early on Friday afternoon.

Visitors explored the history and legacies of the Southern Freedom Movement in the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice's (CSSJ) new exhibition, The Civil Rights Movement: Unfinished Business.

Meanwhile health innovators discussed strategies to close the unequal health outcomes gap in one panel discussion, and at another, Graduate Fellows from CSSJ discussed their work in bringing slavery into public history today.

Later in the afternoon, alumni bowed their heads in quiet reflection in a Ceremony to Honor Ancestors at the Slavery Memorial near University Hall—a reminder of Brown's connection to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

As returning alumni found each other and explored campus, there was no shortage of smiles, hugs, and selfies.

“Last time I was this happy was at the last #BrownBAR18 Black Alumni Reunion at @brownuniversity, it is a joy indescribable! Speechless!”
Christine Grant ’84, via Twitter

It's like walking into a family reunion and getting a thousand hugs. Everyone around campus is so excited to see us here.

Andrea M. O'Neal ’03

In the evening, nine participants from the 1968 Walkout reflected on the statement they made by leaving campus, and the immense effect the event had on successive generations of student activists who have worked to create a more diverse and inclusive Brown community. Congdon Street Baptist Church pastor Dr. Justin Lester, representing the historically African American church that fed and sheltered the students during the protest, noted that his members remain proud of the important role they played in the Walkout.

1968 Walkout Reflection Panel

 

A conversation moderated by Reunion Co-Chair and Walkout participant Sheryl (Grooms) Brissett Chapman ’71.

We had a real sense of camaraderie among us. We were in this together and we were going to stick it out together.

Gail DeCosta ’69

And attendees responded via social media:

“I am because they are. Feeling incredibly indebted to these & the many other participants of 1968 Black Student Walkout but also many others before & many others after who made demands on this institution to make not only my attendance but my thriving here possible. #BrownBAR18”
Dania Matos ’03, via Twitter

Telling your truth

Saturday morning, Provost Richard M. Locke; Professor Tricia Rose PhD’93, P’14, Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America; and Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Shontay Delalue talked about the University's ambitious diversity and inclusion action plan. Locke pointed to increases in the number of students and faculty from historically underrepresented groups, and the expansion of courses, research, speakers, and programs centered on issues of diversity, inclusion, and social justice.

Panel Discussion

 

“Promoting Inclusivity on College Hill and Beyond” (Part 1)

We want to play an intellectual leadership role in these areas. We are really bringing to the forefront not just that this is the right thing to do, but it's the smart thing to do. If we are going to be known as a university that attracts the best and brightest from all walks of life, then we have to walk the talk.

Provost Richard M. Locke

Sergio Gonzalez, Brown's senior vice president for advancement, shared news of two new fundraising efforts that will support African American students:

  • In honor of longtime Brown educator, mentor, and administrator Levi Adams ADE'75 hon., a new scholarship will support the next generation of African American physicians working to earn M.D.s at Brown's Warren Alpert Medical School.
  • The Inman Page Black Alumni Council (IPC) launched an effort to raise $100,000 toward the establishment of a Brown Annual Fund scholarship to support exceptional African American students beginning in 2019-20.

Theatre director/educator Benny Sato Ambush ’73 engaged longtime BET Chairman and CEO Debra Lee ’76 LHD’14 hon. and two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage ’86 DFA’11 hon., P’20 in a conversation about the Black artist movement in America and inclusivity across all media.

“Lynn Nottage shares journey to becoming playwright at #BrownBAR18. We're now in golden moment of Black storytelling, she says.”
Sande Smith ’84, via Twitter

A dozen more workshops and receptions on Saturday brought accomplished alumni, Brown faculty, and attendees together around topics such as education, women in STEM, race and sports, the intersection of technology and society, media and storytelling, and public policy.

In one such session, Shane L. Lloyd MPH ’11 moderated a discussion of how Brown's student activists leverage their differences for collective power. Panelists—all young alumni of Brown—talked about how their immersion in the diverse Brown community led to a deeper embrace of their own identities, the evolution of intersectionality on campus, and coalition-building strategies.

As the day faded into evening, a Rites and Reason Theatre production directed by Associate Professor Elmo Terry-Morgan ’74 incorporated the perspectives of 11 women and men who walked out of Brown on December 5, 1968. The production was based on interviews conducted by Reunion Co-Chair Sheryl (Grooms) Brissett Chapman ’71, who also wrote the script.

"A rare coming together of three revered Brown Alumni theatrical superstars: Loni Berry, Elmo Terry-Morgan, and Benny Ambush." (picture above)
Joseph Burno ’76, via IPC Facebook Group

When President Christina Paxson took to the stage on Saturday evening to open the program, listeners expected an introduction to the evening's honoree and keynote speaker, President Emerita Ruth J. Simmons LHD’12 hon. But first, she talked about the importance of symbolic gestures...ending with the surprise announcement that the J. Walter Wilson building would be renamed Page-Robinson Hall in honor of pioneering Black graduates Inman Edward Page (Class of 1877) and Ethel Tremaine Robinson (Class of 1905). The tent erupted with thunderous applause.

Page-Robinson Hall

 

We celebrate a rich history of Black legacy, in all of its resilience in the world, and in all of the ways it is woven into the fabric of Brown.

This weekend, we celebrate a rich and profound history of Black legacy, in all of its resilience in the world, and in all of the ways it is woven into the fabric of Brown University.

President Christina Paxson

Then, IPC President Russell Malbrough ’98 fought back tears of joy to present the IPC's inaugural Black Legacy Award to Simmons before she began her remarks.

Keynote Remarks

 

Brown President Emerita Ruth J. Simmons LHD’12 hon. discussed the impact of the 1968 Black Student Walkout.

...The bonds among us must always be stronger than the differences and disagreements that divide us. Those bonds, if strengthened, will lead to a better world for all of us. So in the traditions of the student protests that opened doors for so many, let us agree: We will persist in efforts to defeat bigotry until victory is won.

President Emerita Ruth J. Simmons LHD’12 hon.

“WE LOVE YOU RUTH
WE LOVE YOU RUTH
WE LOVE YOU RUTH
WE LOVE YOU RUTH
#BrownBAR18 #EverTrue #MyPresidentWasBlack”

Tiffany Yizar ’07, via Twitter

To cap off a day of sharing and soul searching, attendees grooved to a different type of soul (and other genres) at a revival of a popular Brown tradition, Funk Nite.

Raising up voices

On Sunday morning, the final gathering of the reunion featured inspirational musical interludes by approximately 50 members of Brown's combined Black choirs (Facebook video), along with remarks from acclaimed spiritual life coach Iyanla Vanzant.

What started as a buzz during registration on Friday crescendoed to an unstoppable force of energy by the close of the weekend. For some attendees, this was the first time they had set foot on College Hill since they passed through the Van Wickle Gates. Whether it was the invigorating conversations, meaningful reconnections, joyful celebrations, or all three, the consensus among alumni was clear: we'll be back.

“Much of my growth into the person I am happened @BrownUniversity it's near impossible to think who I'd be without the layered experiences I gained there. I'm very appreciative of the Black Brown Community - then, now & future #EverTrue #Forward #BrownBAR18”
Bradley Toney ’10, via Twitter

The opportunity to interact with other alums from the entire spectrum of classes and reunions has just really been invaluable.

Diane Johnson ’94

It's also important for us to recognize that there's still a role that we can play in influencing the institution, and the next generations.

Denise Slaughter ’75 AM’77

And there's more...

Let the love shine on

The energy and excitement of this Reunion has already sparked an outpouring of interest in growing the Black alumni community. The IPC encourages your participation! How would YOU like to be involved?

Staying informed, spreading the word

Supporting Black students at Brown

Growing IPC and the Black alumni community

  • Keep the conversations going by volunteering to engage alumni in your area.
  • Are you interested in helping to create communications, organize events, advise students, and/or other strategies to further connect this community? Email [email protected] to express your interest.
  • Consider donating event space, professional services, or gifts-in-kind to IPC.

Explore other parts of the Brown alumni community

The 2018 Black Alumni Reunion was hosted by Brown's Inman Page Black Alumni Council (IPC) with support from the Brown Alumni Association and academic and administrative departments at the University.

Photography by: Justin Case, Rob Ranney ’08, Ashley McCabe.

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