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The Anointed One

Students See Alvin Bragg as Conciliator

By Anna D. Wilde

On the evening of Sunday, February 9, 1992, a group of about 40 Black and Jewish students gathered for a tense discussion in a gray-carpeted, well-lit room in the Freshman Union.

Just a few days before, the Harvard Black Students Association had hosted a speech by City University of New York professor Leonard Jeffries, provoking a 400-student protest spearheaded by Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel.

The Union event was the only moment of organized talk in a year marked by silence and insult. The person who made it happen was at the time just a first-year student: Freshman Black Table President Alvin L. Bragg '95.

Some exchanges were sharp. Jews argued that Jeffries was anti-Semitic and inaccurate in some of his views. A Black student retorted, "If you feel that what Jeffries says is bullshit, then prove to me what he says is bullshit."

But as moderator, Bragg kept the session from escalating into a verbal brawl, diffusing tension by reminding participants that they were in an open forum, not an official meeting.

"It just amazed me the poise he had, the ability to maintain a lid on a room that could have blown up," says Michael H. Pine '95, a Hillel official and friend of Bragg's who was at the discussion.

The 1992 meeting was typical of Bragg, whom many students credit with a rare ability to reconcile diverse people and clashing views.

In his own term as president of the Black Students Association last year, Bragg was known as a mediator and, according to his predecessor, a "conciliator." It is not the usual role for the president of the BSA, which through the years has found that only controversial activism forced significant change from the Harvard administration.

Bragg is positioned to someday assume such a role on the larger stage of local or national politics. He has powerful mentors, including the Rev. Calvin O. Butts, pastor of Harlem's influential Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Bragg reconciles both strong roots in Harlem and an elite educational background at Harvard and New York's private Trinity School. His mother, Sadie C. Bragg, says he was raised to "know who he was and live in both worlds."

The Harvard senior himself says he will likely not end up running for office. But whatever he does eventually, today there is a definite sense of the anointed about him.

Says Dean of Students Archie C. Epps, who hasbeen watching Harvard political talent since thelate 1960s, "I would push him toward electivepolitics because he's the perfect example of acrossover politician who can draw votes from bothwhite and Black voters."

Striver's Row

On the wall in Bragg's newly bare Currier Housesingle, opposite the sleek super-bass, multiple-CDstereo, there is a detailed neighborhood map ofHarlem with notable sites marked.

Bragg grew up on a street of brownstones knownlocally as Striver's Row. The street, which wasfeatured in the movie "Jungle Fever," is ahistoric haven for upper-middle-class Blackprofessional households; Booker T. Washington IVis rumored to live there.

His parents, Sadie and Alvin Sr., were notnative New Yorkers. In fact, they met in eighthgrade in the 22,000-person town of Petersburg,Va., 22 miles southwest of Richmond.

Sadie, the valedictorian of Petersburg'sPeabody High School, won a scholarship to localVirginia State University; Alvin Sr. Went off toSyracuse University in New York, and the coupleMarried during his senior year there.

"We grew up in a small town" with strong localinstitutions like church, Boy Scouts and girlScouts, Alvin Sr. says. "That's one thing weagreed on--we would raise him like we wereraised."

That's why they chose Striver's Row, whereBragg says he was brought up by the entireneighborhood.

"It has that kind of, 'it takes a village toraise a child' attitude,'" Bragg says.Close-knit residents even sponsored a yearly blockparty with games and food for the children, whichthey organized themselves.

The couple considered moving to a New Jerseysuburb, but they decided to remain in a largelyBlack area instead. They also made sure Bragg wentto the historic Abyssinian church every Sunday.

"We wanted Alvin to be raised so he wouldunderstand growing up as a Black kid and alsoliving in a predominantly white world," his fathersays. "He would be educated, but would have torelate to people who weren't thatwell-educated...so he could understand bothworlds."

Every day after school, Alvin Sr. Brought hisson to his office at the New York Urban League,giving him a glimpse of how its clients lived.Later, Alvin Sr. took his son to the homelessshelters where he served as a city administrator.

Bragg says he did grow up aware of the contrastbetween his that and those of less privilegedyoung people.

Others in Harlem "wouldn't have the same kindof potential, walking to P.S. whatever and tryingto learn from a teacher who might not be asconcerned," he says.

Bragg himself was well protected by his blockand his parents, though his mother says she"worries about him even now" and can't fall asleepuntil he gets home for the night. Every summer,his parents sent him away from the city to staywith relatives in Virginia.

Education was particularly important to SadieBragg, who is now dean of academic affairs at theBorough of Manhattan Community College. Even inhis toddler days, the former math professor workedwith her son on number games, though his fatherremembers a lot of Atari as well.

From the age of four, Bragg attended TrinitySchool, a three building private Episcopalinstitution on 91st Street in Manhattan. Foundedin 1709, it is the oldest in New York City andtoday charges high school students about $15,000 ayear in tuition.

Bragg says he enjoyed Trinity, despiteoccasionally feeling like teachers asked him to bethe "flag-bearer" for his race in a discussion.Denise Philpotts, the school's coordinator ofmulticultural affairs, says she noticed Bragg'sself-confidence even in his overwhelmingly whiteelementary school classes.

Over the years, Bragg played soccer, tennis andbasketball, participated in student government andserved as the trinity Tiger mascot.

Today, he is best remembered in the school forstarting an annual block party patterned after thestriver's Row festivals he knew as a child. Braggorchestrated every detail, form the dunking tanksto the parents who turned hot dogs.

The money from the festival goes to Hale House,a local charitable organization.

Trinity Dean of Students Tom Ramsey says thatas Bragg's parents hoped, "he did a lot ofbridging between the school and the community."

While Trinity is only about 30 blocks fromHarlem, Ramsey says, "It's like Cambridge versusRoxbury. it's close, but it's a different world."

'Big Papa'

Today, Bragg is a round-faced young man with aconstant flow of talk and the low-slung pants of ahip-hop fan. Friends call him Big Papa, both for arap artist he likes and because "he's got thislittle chubby going on," one says.

He can't sit still for an interview, constantlyfidgeting and rarely leaving a moment of silenceunfilled. Friends say he is always gregarious andfull of energy--indeed, at 1:30 a.m., he isdiscussing the Dunster stabbing case withclassmates and heading out with a friend to find aparty.

"He's kind of like that Eveready guy," friendJaJa S. Jackson '95 says.

Many people talk about Bragg's ability togracefully set those around him at ease. One whitestudent remembers Bragg's effort to make him feelincluded in largely Black basketball games atHarvard's QRAC.

Darrell E. Williams '95-'96 recalls a similarsituation: Bragg, as Freshman Black Tablepresident, made him comfortable in the largelyAfrican American crowd despite his south Africanorigin.

Bragg is also a smooth and convincing talker.

"Alvin is the only person I know ever to scoresolely by mouth," Pine says. During a full-courtintramural basketball game, Bragg used a commandreserved for half-court competition, yelling"check it up!" at the guard of the opposing team.

"Without thinking, the guy gave him the ball,"Pine says. "The other team's guard wasn't aproblem for the rest of the game."

Bragg rarely eats a meal without a constantround of hellos from acquaintances; Formerroommate Dan N. Halpern '95 notes that duringtheir first year, the clerks at Store 24 alwaysgreeted him by name.

"He does it very naturally," his mother says."Sometimes I have to remind him, "Don't give me asnow job here."'

But beneath the easy charm, those who knowBragg say the kindness is genuine. His black Volvois often at the disposal of friends.

For instance, when an acquaintance signed upfor the wrong site for the Law School AdmissionTest, Bragg drove her to Amherst, Mass., in themiddle of the night so she could take the test inthe morning.

"He is someone to turn to for guidance on alllevels," says Kristen M. Clarke '97, Bragg'ssuccessor as BSA president.

At dinner, Williams says, "freshmen would comeup to Alvin and ask for advice, ask 'what do youthink about Gov 30,' or what they should do forinternships."

Many people who know Bragg also note thediversity of his pool of friends. And, unlike manyBlack students in recent years, he didn'texclusively request Quad houses, which are home tothe College's largest Black community. Instead,Bragg was randomized into Currier his sophomoreyear.

Most of Bragg's long-term friends, however, areBlack, he says, despite his largely white highschool. On Bragg's wall is a Xeroxed photo ofeight young Black men, his closest buddies fromhome.

"They had the same kind of experience as Idid," he says.

A Smooth Term

Dating back to 1969, When a Black student groupused veiled promises of riot to push a balkyFaculty into creating Afro-American Studies, therehas been a tradition of strong-armed activism inthe BSA. During the deliberations over AfroAm, onestudent sat outside the Faculty room with aconcealed meat cleaver during the deliberationsover Afro-Am; few believe the department wouldhave been created without the threats.

As BSA president, Bragg was not part of thatmilitant tradition, though Black students atHarvard have rarely forced change withoutprotests.

"He's more a moderator than a debater,"Williams says.

For example, when Kenan Professor of GovernmentHarvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53 made a controversialremark linking grade inflation to increased Blackenrollment at Harvard, Bragg was not theprofessor's opponent in a Kennedy School forum onthe topic.

Instead, as Harvard Political Union Chair, hewas the referee as Mansfield argued againstsomeone else.

"He stands out as the one president who did notflirt with Black nationalism" in recent times,Epps says, characterizing Bragg's BSA term as"smooth."

Bragg himself cites support for younger Blackstudents as perhaps his proudest accomplishment asBSA president. "To me that's the most importantthing," he says.

Luis R. Rodriguez '94, his vice president,recalls Bragg's ability to "bring across a lot ofdifferent points of view...He spanned a broadspectrum of Harvard life."

During Bragg's year at the helm, the BSA workedwith groups that are rarely its close allies. Theassociation co-sponsored an event will theBisexual, Gay and Lesbian Students Association andheld several discussions with Hillel.

Bragg worked cooperatively with Harvardadministrators, serving as a speaker for anEpps-engineered showing of a film on Black "Liberators" who freed Jews from concentrationcamps.

Bragg's year provided a stark contrast both tothe protesters of 1969 and to the presidentialterms before and after his. His predecessor,Zaheer R. Ali '94, helped bring controversialspeakers like Jeffries to campus and sponsoredanti-administration broadsides with titles like,"On the Harvard Plantation" and "The PeculiarInstitution."

This fall, Clarke provoked controversy with aletter in which she quoted academics who linkedmelanin to "greater mental, physical and spiritualabilities." She also organized a rally against thebook The Bell Curve and provoked a peacefulprotest from Hillel for inviting Wellesleyprofessor Tony Martin to campus.

Ali, who will spend next year working for theNation of Islam, says Bragg was always a force forreconciliation among groups, even before he waspresident.

"He was very conciliatory and did his best tostay in the middle, stay in the mainstream," Alisays.

While Bragg's peacemaking won plaudits fromClarke as well as other campus groups and Epps,the BSA voted strongly for a crop of untriedfirst-year students after his year ended.

the first-years promised activism, andattendance at BSA meetings swelled by about athird during Clarke's term.

Clarke applauds Bragg's work and leadership.During her year, however, "overall the BSAincreased its activity level along political,cultural and social lines. There was more activismand generation of awareness...People were a bigmore aware of the organization's presence."

Ali divides BSA leaders into two camps, theintegrationist and the autonomist, placing Braggin the former and himself in the latter.

Bragg himself says he "does like to sit down atthe table and get a broad range" of opinions.

"I definitely believe in autonomy, but maybeI'm more of a pragmatist," he says. "We're atHarvard University. Are we really going to have anautonomous Black community when we receive moneyfrom the Undergraduate Council?"

A Legacy

The Bragg family home on Striver's Row issituated between two other historic Harlemthorough-fares, which are named after Adam ClaytonPowell Jr. and Frederick Douglass.

The street names are a good reminder of thepast political and cultural potency of the areaoften called the "capital of Black America."Powell, the only Black member of the U.S. House ofRepresentatives in the middle of the century andperhaps Harlem's most famous politician, waspastor of Bragg's own Abyssinian Baptist Church.

"Old ladies from church still loveD-11BRAGGCrimson/PhotographerALVIN BRAGG '95, in a 1994 photograph

Says Dean of Students Archie C. Epps, who hasbeen watching Harvard political talent since thelate 1960s, "I would push him toward electivepolitics because he's the perfect example of acrossover politician who can draw votes from bothwhite and Black voters."

Striver's Row

On the wall in Bragg's newly bare Currier Housesingle, opposite the sleek super-bass, multiple-CDstereo, there is a detailed neighborhood map ofHarlem with notable sites marked.

Bragg grew up on a street of brownstones knownlocally as Striver's Row. The street, which wasfeatured in the movie "Jungle Fever," is ahistoric haven for upper-middle-class Blackprofessional households; Booker T. Washington IVis rumored to live there.

His parents, Sadie and Alvin Sr., were notnative New Yorkers. In fact, they met in eighthgrade in the 22,000-person town of Petersburg,Va., 22 miles southwest of Richmond.

Sadie, the valedictorian of Petersburg'sPeabody High School, won a scholarship to localVirginia State University; Alvin Sr. Went off toSyracuse University in New York, and the coupleMarried during his senior year there.

"We grew up in a small town" with strong localinstitutions like church, Boy Scouts and girlScouts, Alvin Sr. says. "That's one thing weagreed on--we would raise him like we wereraised."

That's why they chose Striver's Row, whereBragg says he was brought up by the entireneighborhood.

"It has that kind of, 'it takes a village toraise a child' attitude,'" Bragg says.Close-knit residents even sponsored a yearly blockparty with games and food for the children, whichthey organized themselves.

The couple considered moving to a New Jerseysuburb, but they decided to remain in a largelyBlack area instead. They also made sure Bragg wentto the historic Abyssinian church every Sunday.

"We wanted Alvin to be raised so he wouldunderstand growing up as a Black kid and alsoliving in a predominantly white world," his fathersays. "He would be educated, but would have torelate to people who weren't thatwell-educated...so he could understand bothworlds."

Every day after school, Alvin Sr. Brought hisson to his office at the New York Urban League,giving him a glimpse of how its clients lived.Later, Alvin Sr. took his son to the homelessshelters where he served as a city administrator.

Bragg says he did grow up aware of the contrastbetween his that and those of less privilegedyoung people.

Others in Harlem "wouldn't have the same kindof potential, walking to P.S. whatever and tryingto learn from a teacher who might not be asconcerned," he says.

Bragg himself was well protected by his blockand his parents, though his mother says she"worries about him even now" and can't fall asleepuntil he gets home for the night. Every summer,his parents sent him away from the city to staywith relatives in Virginia.

Education was particularly important to SadieBragg, who is now dean of academic affairs at theBorough of Manhattan Community College. Even inhis toddler days, the former math professor workedwith her son on number games, though his fatherremembers a lot of Atari as well.

From the age of four, Bragg attended TrinitySchool, a three building private Episcopalinstitution on 91st Street in Manhattan. Foundedin 1709, it is the oldest in New York City andtoday charges high school students about $15,000 ayear in tuition.

Bragg says he enjoyed Trinity, despiteoccasionally feeling like teachers asked him to bethe "flag-bearer" for his race in a discussion.Denise Philpotts, the school's coordinator ofmulticultural affairs, says she noticed Bragg'sself-confidence even in his overwhelmingly whiteelementary school classes.

Over the years, Bragg played soccer, tennis andbasketball, participated in student government andserved as the trinity Tiger mascot.

Today, he is best remembered in the school forstarting an annual block party patterned after thestriver's Row festivals he knew as a child. Braggorchestrated every detail, form the dunking tanksto the parents who turned hot dogs.

The money from the festival goes to Hale House,a local charitable organization.

Trinity Dean of Students Tom Ramsey says thatas Bragg's parents hoped, "he did a lot ofbridging between the school and the community."

While Trinity is only about 30 blocks fromHarlem, Ramsey says, "It's like Cambridge versusRoxbury. it's close, but it's a different world."

'Big Papa'

Today, Bragg is a round-faced young man with aconstant flow of talk and the low-slung pants of ahip-hop fan. Friends call him Big Papa, both for arap artist he likes and because "he's got thislittle chubby going on," one says.

He can't sit still for an interview, constantlyfidgeting and rarely leaving a moment of silenceunfilled. Friends say he is always gregarious andfull of energy--indeed, at 1:30 a.m., he isdiscussing the Dunster stabbing case withclassmates and heading out with a friend to find aparty.

"He's kind of like that Eveready guy," friendJaJa S. Jackson '95 says.

Many people talk about Bragg's ability togracefully set those around him at ease. One whitestudent remembers Bragg's effort to make him feelincluded in largely Black basketball games atHarvard's QRAC.

Darrell E. Williams '95-'96 recalls a similarsituation: Bragg, as Freshman Black Tablepresident, made him comfortable in the largelyAfrican American crowd despite his south Africanorigin.

Bragg is also a smooth and convincing talker.

"Alvin is the only person I know ever to scoresolely by mouth," Pine says. During a full-courtintramural basketball game, Bragg used a commandreserved for half-court competition, yelling"check it up!" at the guard of the opposing team.

"Without thinking, the guy gave him the ball,"Pine says. "The other team's guard wasn't aproblem for the rest of the game."

Bragg rarely eats a meal without a constantround of hellos from acquaintances; Formerroommate Dan N. Halpern '95 notes that duringtheir first year, the clerks at Store 24 alwaysgreeted him by name.

"He does it very naturally," his mother says."Sometimes I have to remind him, "Don't give me asnow job here."'

But beneath the easy charm, those who knowBragg say the kindness is genuine. His black Volvois often at the disposal of friends.

For instance, when an acquaintance signed upfor the wrong site for the Law School AdmissionTest, Bragg drove her to Amherst, Mass., in themiddle of the night so she could take the test inthe morning.

"He is someone to turn to for guidance on alllevels," says Kristen M. Clarke '97, Bragg'ssuccessor as BSA president.

At dinner, Williams says, "freshmen would comeup to Alvin and ask for advice, ask 'what do youthink about Gov 30,' or what they should do forinternships."

Many people who know Bragg also note thediversity of his pool of friends. And, unlike manyBlack students in recent years, he didn'texclusively request Quad houses, which are home tothe College's largest Black community. Instead,Bragg was randomized into Currier his sophomoreyear.

Most of Bragg's long-term friends, however, areBlack, he says, despite his largely white highschool. On Bragg's wall is a Xeroxed photo ofeight young Black men, his closest buddies fromhome.

"They had the same kind of experience as Idid," he says.

A Smooth Term

Dating back to 1969, When a Black student groupused veiled promises of riot to push a balkyFaculty into creating Afro-American Studies, therehas been a tradition of strong-armed activism inthe BSA. During the deliberations over AfroAm, onestudent sat outside the Faculty room with aconcealed meat cleaver during the deliberationsover Afro-Am; few believe the department wouldhave been created without the threats.

As BSA president, Bragg was not part of thatmilitant tradition, though Black students atHarvard have rarely forced change withoutprotests.

"He's more a moderator than a debater,"Williams says.

For example, when Kenan Professor of GovernmentHarvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53 made a controversialremark linking grade inflation to increased Blackenrollment at Harvard, Bragg was not theprofessor's opponent in a Kennedy School forum onthe topic.

Instead, as Harvard Political Union Chair, hewas the referee as Mansfield argued againstsomeone else.

"He stands out as the one president who did notflirt with Black nationalism" in recent times,Epps says, characterizing Bragg's BSA term as"smooth."

Bragg himself cites support for younger Blackstudents as perhaps his proudest accomplishment asBSA president. "To me that's the most importantthing," he says.

Luis R. Rodriguez '94, his vice president,recalls Bragg's ability to "bring across a lot ofdifferent points of view...He spanned a broadspectrum of Harvard life."

During Bragg's year at the helm, the BSA workedwith groups that are rarely its close allies. Theassociation co-sponsored an event will theBisexual, Gay and Lesbian Students Association andheld several discussions with Hillel.

Bragg worked cooperatively with Harvardadministrators, serving as a speaker for anEpps-engineered showing of a film on Black "Liberators" who freed Jews from concentrationcamps.

Bragg's year provided a stark contrast both tothe protesters of 1969 and to the presidentialterms before and after his. His predecessor,Zaheer R. Ali '94, helped bring controversialspeakers like Jeffries to campus and sponsoredanti-administration broadsides with titles like,"On the Harvard Plantation" and "The PeculiarInstitution."

This fall, Clarke provoked controversy with aletter in which she quoted academics who linkedmelanin to "greater mental, physical and spiritualabilities." She also organized a rally against thebook The Bell Curve and provoked a peacefulprotest from Hillel for inviting Wellesleyprofessor Tony Martin to campus.

Ali, who will spend next year working for theNation of Islam, says Bragg was always a force forreconciliation among groups, even before he waspresident.

"He was very conciliatory and did his best tostay in the middle, stay in the mainstream," Alisays.

While Bragg's peacemaking won plaudits fromClarke as well as other campus groups and Epps,the BSA voted strongly for a crop of untriedfirst-year students after his year ended.

the first-years promised activism, andattendance at BSA meetings swelled by about athird during Clarke's term.

Clarke applauds Bragg's work and leadership.During her year, however, "overall the BSAincreased its activity level along political,cultural and social lines. There was more activismand generation of awareness...People were a bigmore aware of the organization's presence."

Ali divides BSA leaders into two camps, theintegrationist and the autonomist, placing Braggin the former and himself in the latter.

Bragg himself says he "does like to sit down atthe table and get a broad range" of opinions.

"I definitely believe in autonomy, but maybeI'm more of a pragmatist," he says. "We're atHarvard University. Are we really going to have anautonomous Black community when we receive moneyfrom the Undergraduate Council?"

A Legacy

The Bragg family home on Striver's Row issituated between two other historic Harlemthorough-fares, which are named after Adam ClaytonPowell Jr. and Frederick Douglass.

The street names are a good reminder of thepast political and cultural potency of the areaoften called the "capital of Black America."Powell, the only Black member of the U.S. House ofRepresentatives in the middle of the century andperhaps Harlem's most famous politician, waspastor of Bragg's own Abyssinian Baptist Church.

"Old ladies from church still loveD-11BRAGGCrimson/PhotographerALVIN BRAGG '95, in a 1994 photograph

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