A crowd packed Sanders Theatre to capacity Wednesday afternoon as the University celebrated the launch of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research by conferring the W.E.B. Du Bois medal on six celebrity recipients.
The event was presided over by professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and by Glenn H. Hutchins ’77, the donor whose $15 million gift established the Hutchins Center, which will be located on Mount Auburn St. and will house seven existing initiatives and four new initiatives devoted to African and African American studies.
Honored at the ceremony were U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis, Supreme Court Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor, senior advisor to President Barack Obama Valerie B. Jarrett, the playwright and "Lincoln" screenwriter Tony Kushner, film director Steven Spielberg, and National Basketball Association commissioner David J. Stern. Due to the government shutdown, Lewis and Jarrett remained in Washington, D.C., and were honored in absentia.
But while much pomp was directed at the honorees, the event was, at its core, a celebration of Africans and African Americans at Harvard, as well as of the new Hutchins Center. Gates kicked off the nearly two and a half hour program by detailing the long and ranging history of blacks at Harvard, and of the development of the African and African American Studies department.
“We have come so very far, so very far by faith, and lots of hard work, since those contentious early days when the fledgling department was so very vulnerable, its future deeply in doubt,” Gates said. “We need people like Glenn Hutchins, the person whose intelligence is a force multiplier. The person who doesn’t just have the vision, but who also has a way to make that vision a reality.”
When Hutchins took the the podium a few minutes later, he outlined the specifics of the new center and then cued a video featuring many of Harvard’s leaders--past and present--talking about their high expectations for the new center.
When it came time to award the medals, a lighter moment was had when presenter Mass. Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78 chose to make a joke out of the fact that he took the stage without a formal introduction before presenting the Du Bois medal to Jarrett.
“I will treasure this recognition, and pledge to earn it each day by promotion equality of access to opportunity through all,” Jarrett wrote in a note relayed by Patrick.
After Kushner, an award-winning playwright and the screenwriter for Spielberg’s acclaimed films "Lincoln" and "Munich", was given his medal, Celtics star Bill Russell came to the podium to introduce Stern, praising him for the league’s massive community-service efforts during his time as commissioner.
“In recognizing me, you’re recognizing the power of sports, my colleagues at the NBA, and the thousands of players who I’ve had the pleasure to see play while I’ve been associated with the NBA,” Stern said after receiving his medal.
After Stern, Harvard Law School Dean Martha L. Minow introduced Justice Sotomayor, who appeared emotional during her remarks.
“I [am] humbled because I am included in this company of co-honorees who have done such extraordinary things in their life, humbled because I am being given an award by a school and department and people who I so greatly admire in their endeavors,” she said. “I am always reminded and continue to remember that I never stand alone.”
After Hutchins took the podium again to recognize Rep. Lewis--who, like Jarrett, remained in Washington, D.C. due to the government shutdown--University President Drew G. Faust rose to honor Spielberg “for bringing us stories of Africans and African Americans, stories of struggles for freedom and justice that bond all of us in a common humanity.”
—Staff writer Matthew Q. Clarida can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattClarida.
This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:
CORRECTION: Oct. 3, 2013
An earlier version of the caption of the photo accompanying this article misspelled the last name of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
CORRECTION: Oct. 14, 2013
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of initiatives that are being housed within the new Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. In fact, the Hutchins Center is uniting seven existing initiatives and four new initiatives, not nine initiatives total.