The day before the class of '99 marched out the Van Wickle Gates, nearly every African-American senior gathered in Manning Chapel to sing and pray. The occasion was the annual Onyx Baccalaureate Ceremony, informally called the "blackalaureate," a service that each year includes a spoken charge issued by an "elder" in the community. The elder that year was Elmo Terry-Morgan '74.
Terry-Morgan, an associate professor of what was then Afro-American studies, knew immediately what he wanted to say. Year after year he'd seen African-American students sit in his Churchill House office with the same complaints: their clubs and programs were underfunded, there were too few black faces on campus, racial tension was a fact of life. "There was just an overall sense by a lot of black people that we are not wanted here," he says. Despite decades of struggle by student activists, the situation never seemed to change.
Perhaps the solution lay off campus, Terry-Morgan proposed. Inside the packed chapel on May 23, 1999, he issued a challenge to the senior class: create a black alumni association. A committed group of alumni, he reasoned, could mentor students, support them in conflicts with the administration, help recruit black faculty and high-school seniors, and raise money for such cultural outlets as the Third World Center and Rites and Reason Theatre. Seniors Artis Arnold and Russell Malbrough, both of whom had one semester left at Brown, were captivated. They believed it was their calling to answer the charge.
Last October, two and a half years later, the Inman Page Black Alumni Council, an official arm of the Brown Alumni Association, held its first annual meeting. At that Faculty Club gathering, the first president, Mark Winston Griffith '85, said he felt "solemn and giddy" at the same time. "What we are engaged in here," he told the group, "is so full of rhythm, life, endless possibility, audacity, funk, and bottomless humanity that I just want to close my eyes, smack my lips, and clap my hands." More than 200 people attended the event the day before Ruth Simmons's inauguration, making it the largest-ever gathering of black alumni of Brown. The meeting concluded with a rendition of "We Shall Overcome" by Katani Sumner '85.
"It was overwhelming," says Terry-Morgan. "I looked at Artis and Russell, because they are like my sons, and they were both just in tears. It made me cry, too. We never thought we would see anything like it."
THE TIDE, they believed, had finally turned. "I knew something great was happening in the history of Brown," says Arnold, who now works for an investment-consulting company in Boston. "It was sort of a healing process."
Griffith, however, who is executive director of the Central Brooklyn Partnership in New York City, couldn't help thinking that the day should have arrived much sooner. He says the creation of the Inman Page council told him less about how far the University has come than about how far it needs to go. "The irony of this moment is that it shouldn't be so special," he said at the Faculty Club event.
The history of African-American students at Brown began in the late nineteenth century, about 100 years after the University was founded. The first two black graduates were members of the class of 1877. One of them, Inman Page, is the man for whom the new council is named. Born into slavery, Page escaped from a Virginia plantation with his parents in 1863 and fled to Washington, D.C. The Providence Journal, reporting on his Class Day oration, described him as an "orator of rare ability." Page went on to lead four black colleges: Lincoln Institute in Missouri, Langston University in Oklahoma, Western Baptist College in Missouri, and Roger Williams University in Tennessee.
Nearly a century would pass before African Americans attended Brown in significant numbers. After a walkout by black students in 1968, the administration took steps to increase black enrollment from 2 percent of the student body to 11 percent, a number that reflected the population of blacks in the United States at the time. By 1972 there were 417 African-American students at Brown, representing 8.9 percent of the student body.
But that progress stalled. Twenty-five years later, when Arnold and Malbrough arrived on campus, students were still waiting for African-American enrollment to reflect the percentage of blacks in the United States. Arnold and Malbrough were also troubled that there were so few African Americans on the faculty, that racial epithets had been written on bathroom mirrors, and that the Third World Transition Program, an orientation for minorities, was under fire. What's more, Terry-Morgan says, in the mid-1990s African-American students seemed tired of fighting. Arnold and Malbrough noticed the trend as well, remarking later that the black student body was divided politically, socially, and economically. "There was just such a sense of apathy on campus," Terry-Morgan says. "People became very lethargic about politics."
Arnold and Malbrough suspected that African-American alumni, if organized, could reengage the student body. To see if they were right, in the fall of 1999, under Terry-Morgan's guidance, they conducted an independent study of black alumni groups at the seven other Ivies. They discovered that social events and career networking were a mainstay for all of the alumni groups but that some also emphasized such activities as mentoring undergraduates, recruiting high-school students, and raising scholarship money. The data confirmed what the students had hoped they would find: that a black alumni association could serve as a vehicle for social action. "We kind of hoped that even if black alumni weren't interested in coming back for every Commencement or every Campus Dance, they'd still have a commitment to students on campus or [prospective] students in their hometown," says Malbrough, now an administrative assistant at Columbia University and a master's student at the Institute for Research in African American Studies there.
They found evidence that Brown alumni would welcome such a group: nearly 300 alumni were already subscribing to an electronic listserv called Brown Black Folk, which was managed by Joelle Murchison '95. "Those of us who had just graduated were sort of yearning to be reconnected," Murchison says. "People affiliate with what they know."
ARNOLD AND MALBROUGH found one of their strongest allies in Vice President for Alumni Relations Lisa Raiola '84. When they approached her that fall, Raiola was already looking for ways to reengage black alumni. Over the years Brown had established several multicultural alumni groups, but none specifically for African Americans, who seemed increasingly disconnected from the University. "My personal feeling is that the Alumni Association jumped to create this multicultural umbrella without having real traction in the individual communities," she says. "It looks like lip-service, even if it's not." Raiola and her staff agreed to help Arnold and Malbrough create the Inman Page Black Alumni Council.
"If black alumni feel Brown is not interested in engaging them," Raiola says, "they're not going to be interested in helping Brown." She is hopeful that the Inman Page council will draw alumni eager to speak at career fairs, interview prospective undergraduates, and serve as mentors. Alumni represent a tremendous resource for Brown students, she asserts. This is especially true of alumni of color, she says, because there are fewer faculty of color to serve as role models.
Raiola also expects the council to cultivate leaders who will eventually hold office in the Brown Alumni Association and serve on the Corporation. "In the life of the University it's all about who's at the table," Raiola says. She wants to bring to that table people who've been invisible until now.
By meeting the needs of its varied alumni constituencies, she says, the University can only gain.
While the response to the Inman Page Council has been largely positive, the organizers have heard some alumni attack the group as separatist. "It's the age-old argument: why do all the black students sit together in the cafeteria?" says Murchison. "No one notices all the lacrosse players sitting together." She views joining the Inman Page council as no different from supporting the Sports Foundation or attending a Chattertocks reunion. "I don't think people should fear that," she says. "Our community can only become stronger as more and more people are brought into it."
She and other members are firm in their belief that the council will help not only blacks at Brown but also the University as a whole. Harold Bailey '70, a trustee emeritus, says that's precisely why he's supporting the group: "If it doesn't help the University it's a waste of time as far as I'm concerned."
Griffith expects that the Inman Page council will be a significant force in raising money for the University, and that, he hopes, will mute much of the criticism directed at it. "All those people who came to the Inman Page meeting, they all represent potential dollars for the University," Griffith maintains. "Anyone who feels they have a stake in the University is going to give."
ON SEPTEMBER 10, after 400 mail-in ballots were counted, Mark Winston Griffith was narrowly elected to a two-year term as president of the new council. The other officers are president-elect Dorsey James '83, treasurer Vivian McCoy '74, and secretary Denise Bledsoe Slaughter '75, '77 A.M. About 14 percent of African-American alumni participated in the vote, according to the alumni relations office, compared to 9 percent to 10 percent participation in Brown Alumni Association elections.
Griffith's first agenda item isn't sexy, but it's critical: he wants to build a database of African-American alumni. He says most black alumni feel so disconnected from the University that they don't read Brown mail or send in changes of address. Griffith says he has heard from many African Americans who never received a ballot for the election. The irony, he says, is that black alumni run into each other on the street, attend one another's weddings, and eagerly enter one another's phone numbers and addresses into their Palm Pilots. He wants to formalize that network.
Griffith's next goal is loftier. He wants to figure out how to use the council to institutionalize the idea of pluralism at Brown. "We as black alumni and as a council have to play a leadership role in making Brown a place that is made up of more voices and more perspectives," Griffith says. "That's really what it comes down to - giving Brown the benefit of our experience."
He's optimistic. So is Terry-Morgan, who sees the clearest sign of hope in the inauguration of Ruth Simmons, the first African-American president in the Ivies. He also points to smaller signs: Afro-American studies has become the Africana-studies department with the power to hire its own faculty, and the lighting system in the Rites and Reason theater has been fixed at long last. "It's like the beginnings of a golden era," he says. The Inman Page council, he says, is a dream undeferred.
Emily Gold is the BAM's senior writer.