Renamed dormitory honors pioneer in access to and diversity in higher education
In 1956, Bernard W. Harleston, H98, was the first African-American to be hired as a tenure-track professor in Arts and Sciences at Tufts. He would go onto become one of the college’s most beloved teachers and later serve as its dean.
The Tufts community, along with Harleston’s family and friends, gathered on the Medford/Somerville campus on Sept. 23 to honor his contributions to Tufts and to higher education by officially renaming the South Hall dormitory Harleston Hall.
“Wow, I feel like David Ortiz!” said a beaming Harleston, after receiving a standing ovation. The honor, he said, caps a Tufts career that began 60 years ago and ensures that the Harleston legacy will endure. “For that I am grateful and very proud,” he said.
“It’s true that when we came to Tufts in 1956 we knew it would be a new experience,” he said. “We hoped it would be mutually rewarding. It was.”
Former provost Sol Gittleman, H10, the Alice and Nathan Ganther University Professor, joined others at the ceremony in noting that Harleston had a transformative impact on Tufts. “He changed the way we did business at the university and brought in a whole generation of faculty,” said Gittleman. (See “A Man of Firsts.”)
Kendra Field, an assistant professor of history and director of Tufts’ Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, framed Harleston’s legacy by citing his decision to hire more faculty of color. During his tenure as dean of Arts and Sciences from 1970 to 1980, “Dr. Harleston proceeded to hire the next six African-American faculty members at Tufts, six tremendously powerful scholars, writers, teachers and artists,” she said.
One of them was Pearl Robinson, an associate professor of political science.
Yes, Tufts’ decision to hire Harleston back in 1956 was risky, Robinson said, because it brought in a black professor to teach a student body that was mostly white.
“Was this man up to the task? Could he be trusted? Not to worry. The young Bernard Harleston had prepared himself well,” Robinson said. “But he was also part of something bigger.” He brought with him “all the wisdom and vision” of W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke “and other intellectual giants in his toolkit,” including Langston Hughes, whose poem “Mother to Son” she read aloud in Harleston’s honor.
Harleston’s early commitment to diversity and access helped create a university that “truly reflects society,” Field said. The newly renamed Harleston Hall, she told the audience, has been incorporated into a historical mapping project started by the late Tufts historian Gerald Gill about African-American sites important in university history. “Today we’re thrilled to announce Harleston Hall as a new site on the Tufts/Medford Black Freedom Trail.”
Harleston attributes his success at Tufts to the students. From the beginning, he said, “they wanted this Bernie guy to succeed.”
He said he hopes that Harleston Hall will spark students’ creativity and promote mutual respect and high academic achievement. “And I hope they want to live [there] because it promotes good and healthy fun and relaxation.”
Laura Ferguson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.