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When Harvard Became Black

A People’s History of Harvard

AFRO’s first general membership meeting of the spring 2024 semester.
AFRO’s first general membership meeting of the spring 2024 semester. By Courtesy of AFRO
By Prince A. Williams, Crimson Opinion Writer
Prince A. Williams ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Adams House. His column, “A People’s History of Harvard,” runs bi-weekly on Fridays.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the second Black person to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard, started Negro History Week in February 1926, laying the foundation for the Black History Month we know and celebrate today.

Just a week into this Black History Month, AFRO has hosted a film screening of Spike Lee’s classic “Do The Right Thing,” kicked off a community book club of Assata Shakur’s autobiography, and painted a mural to celebrate the occasion.

As AFRO continues to highlight our powerful history, it’s essential for the Harvard community to learn and celebrate the Black history that occurred on our own campus. Learning when Harvard became Black can and does inform how we at AFRO approach community and our organizing today.

When creating AFRO, we looked back for inspiration to a time when the Black community at Harvard was highly organized — more specifically, to the Association of African and Afro-American Students, the original Afro (n.b., Afro was a nickname for the original organization; ours is an acronym).

The first Afro was a significant turning point in the history of Black people at Harvard. Founded in 1963, the purpose of Afro was to promote mutual understanding and friendship, provide a voice for Black students, and help lead the effort to effectively address issues facing the Black community, including all African-descended students at both Harvard and Radcliffe College.

Then, the need for Black organization on campus was obvious in even the minor daily interactions between Black students. Prior to Afro, the climate on campus was such that Black students would not even look at each other when they passed in the Yard. At a time when even saying hello felt taboo, Afro provided a culture of camaraderie among Black students, understanding that community organization is essential for making institutional change.

Afro’s direction would go on to be deeply influenced by the developments of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements occurring far beyond campus.

In the spring of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Six days later, Jeffrey P. Howard ’69, the president of Afro at the time, declared on the steps of Memorial Church, “we seek a place for Black people within the Harvard community.”

Shortly thereafter, Afro took out an ad in The Crimson titled “To Fair Harvard” calling for the University to establish an endowed chair for a Black professor, more courses “relevant” to Black students, hiring more “lower-level” Black faculty, and admitting Black students in proportion to their representation in the population.

Following the political pressure applied by Afro and the national uprisings after the King assassination, Harvard’s Black population almost doubled between 1968 and 1969.

However, Afro understood that their fight for the rights of Black people is inextricably linked to freedom struggles all across the world.

During campus-wide protests against the Vietnam War, the group acted on this principle, joining hundreds of anti-war student demonstrators in occupying University Hall in 1969. During this same period, Afro’s pursuit of a Black Studies department motivated its support for a three-day student strike, which amassed a crowd of 10,000 students and was later extended for another three days.

In partnership with the broader student movement, Afro made substantial progress. Their efforts contributed to the creation of the Harvard-Radcliffe Afro-American Cultural Center in 1969 and the creation of an Afro-American Studies Department.

One of the organization’s most important and distinct characteristics was its commitment to the unity of all African people.

In 1972, Afro and the Pan-African Liberation Committee occupied Massachusetts Hall, demanding the University divest from Gulf Oil for its connection to Portuguese colonies in Africa. In addition, Afro organized around African Freedom Fighters’ Day and aid to independent Black schools like Malcolm X liberation University in North Carolina.

Afro also took care not to separate the cultural from the political. The Black singing group Kuumba was founded in 1970 at the height of Afro’s activity. Kuumba would go on to perform at the 1st Harvard-Radcliffe Black Homecoming and had direct ties to the Afro-American Cultural Center.

When we revived AFRO last semester, there were several lessons we took from this history.

First and foremost, we made it clear that the Black community at Harvard needed a centralized political body to fight for their agenda. As Frederick Douglass told us “power concedes nothing without a demand.” We need to be highly organized to win the needs and interests of our community at Harvard today.

We learned from Afro, too, that our organizing must be grounded in African unity. AFRO’s commitment to pan-Africanism necessitates Black people across the diaspora to come together and fight for our collective freedom.

From Afro, it became clear that Black students today need a culture that is immersed in the political and a politics that is immersed in the cultural.

History as a discipline is about understanding how we got here and how things change over time. But we also cannot forget that a necessary part of our relationship with history is how we respond to it.

As we reflect on our rich tradition, we have a choice: Lose our connection to it or allow it to inform our quest for Justice in the here and now.

Prince A. Williams ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Adams House. His column, “A People’s History of Harvard” runs bi-weekly on Fridays.

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