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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Nelson Mandela was supposed to make a quick exit at the end of the honorary degree ceremony. But as the student performers left the stage, he lingered and greeted everyone. Every robed member of the choir, every golden-sashed Kuumba singer. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic: he shook every hand, and gave out some hugs and kisses too.
Mandela’s personal kindness and joy were dramatic because of the gigantic scale of his achievements. From 27 years in prison to the presidency of his country. From revolutionary to reconciler. From a fighter against apartheid to an agent of racial integration—who was scorned by more extreme black leaders.
Even as the audience laughed at his jokes, Mandela acknowledged his place in history. Generally, Harvard expects honorands to show up at Commencement or to get along without the degree. In awarding a degree out of season, Mandela said, Harvard was honoring the leader of an African nation as it had honored George Washington and Winston Churchill. Much of his speech was about Africa and the role of education and scholarly research in promoting African freedom.
Yet as I watched the embraces and the excitement in the eyes of Harvard students of every ethnicity and origin, students who moments before had sung together in perfect harmony and now were drawing inspiration from touching the great man, I thought: This is not just about Africa. This is about us.
The ceremony was Harvard at its finest. Everything was planned and executed perfectly. Yet nothing was staged. Those multiracial singing groups were not assembled for the occasion, like the black student who was once doctored into a publicity photo of a Wisconsin football game. This is what Harvard really looks like and, at its best, how it really acts.
And then I understood that though the reason 25,000 people had assembled in Tercentenary Theater to celebrate Mandela and South Africa, the reason his message of racial equality was so resonant was because we, in America and at Harvard, have had our own experiences in racial discord. We were celebrating our own successes as well as South Africa’s, and were being reminded of the undone work of our society as we heard Mandela talk about the future of his.
It has not been simple at Harvard. When President Abbott L. Lowell opened the houses, he excluded the few black undergraduates, supposedly for their own good. Harvard proudly points to the Harvard-Virginia football game of 1947 as the first time a black player played against whites on a southern field. The courage of that player, Chester Pierce, is incontestable; the Virginia students waved Confederate flags to signal what they thought about racial mixing. (Pierce became a professor at Harvard Medical School.) Less well known is Harvard’s unconscionable blunder at Annapolis, Maryland in the spring of 1941. Harvard deferred to the segregated U.S. Naval Academy and sent a black player home to Cambridge so the Harvard team would be all white.
The pivotal moment in Harvard’s turn against racial exclusion was when John Monro, Dean of Harvard College in the early 1960s, appointed Archie Epps as assistant dean. Epps, who had come to Harvard Divinity School from the segregated Louisiana bayou, retired as Dean of Students in 1999.
Over the near half-century since Epps’s appointment, this university has been blessed with the services of black administrators devoted to the ideal of an integrated Harvard. The wise and funny Dean Mack Davis died far too young in 1989. David Evans, an Arkansas sharecropper’s son, gave up his career as an engineer to serve Harvard for more than 40 years, now as senior admissions officer.
Integration was never the only option. In 1980 students pushed for a “Third World Center.” It would have been easy for Harvard to buy temporary peace by giving into that demand. Instead President Derek C. Bok appointed the Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes to consider alternatives. Of Gomes’s committee was born the Harvard Foundation—not a separate place to meet special needs of a minority population, but an institution born of a commitment that all of Harvard should benefit from all of Harvard’s cultural richness. The founding director, Professor S. Allen Counter, also raised in the segregated South, is celebrated everywhere for highlighting Harvard’s commitment to racial equality—most recently bringing to Harvard the powerful voice of the young Pakistani, Malala Yousafzai.
These brave African Americans—Epps, Davis, Evans, Gomes, and Counter—are Harvard’s quiet heroes. On paper, a couple of them worked for me; in reality, it has been my honor to work for each of them. Over the decades, in thousands of small conversations with students and faculty and in thousands of small decisions about how to uphold Harvard’s values, they have made Harvard what it is today. They have known about ethnic difference from bitter personal experiences, but have also understood what Epps called the “limits of ethnicity,” that our common humanity and shared values trump our differences.
One enduring way to honor Mandela’s memory at Harvard is to be grateful for the integrated Harvard they have given us, and to commit ourselves to the hard and not always popular work of preserving it.
Harry R. Lewis ’68 is Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and former Dean of the College.
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