Black Leaders: Stories of the Past, for Today

An exhibition at Tufts pays tribute to eight remarkable people as it frames a need for structural change, say organizers

Digital Collections and Archives this month opens a window on how Black executive leadership has advanced the university over more than 50 years. Installed on the main floor of Tisch Library, the exhibition Leading While Black: A Legacy of Transformational Black Leadership at Tufts University is a masterful layering of stories and archival photographs to create an evocative tribute. It is part of a larger project accompanied by a livestreaming event on February 19.

But these stories, say organizers, also sharpen a focus on what it takes to drive change and challenge Tufts to rise to meet its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

The exhibit Leading While Black frames the past 50 years of Black executive leadership at Tufts as “inspiration for our shared future.” Photo: Alonso NicholsThe exhibit Leading While Black frames the past 50 years of Black executive leadership at Tufts as “inspiration for our shared future.” Photo: Alonso Nichols

“It’s always a challenge for an institution to reckon with the structures that hold it back from its highest ideals,” said Kris Manjapra, professor of history. “With this project, we’re celebrating the resilience of people who have done tremendously hard work within a system that -- we can call it what it is – is an inequitable system. But we’re also asking a key question. Why have there been so few? And what do we do to change those structures that hold them back? So in my mind, this is also a catalyst for change.”

Katrina Moore, director of the Africana Center, agreed the exhibition is an opportunity to raise awareness of the contributions of the honorees--people of character, integrity, and, most importantly, staying power.

“This is a representation of what Is possible for any Black leader,” she said. “It’s a way to let students know they too are able to leave a legacy, whatever it is they decide to do. It’s now incumbent on the university to learn from the honorees and figure where we go from here -- how do we keep this recognition going?”

And for co-organizer Alonso Nichols, chief of photography, those entwined objectives – of reflection and of action – are crucial when talking about new pathways to Black leadership at Tufts.

“Something that always strikes me about universities is that we have short-term memory,” he said. “We work in four-year cycles that can lead to forgetting the big picture. Archival resources make sure we don’t forget. And we’re so fortunate to have incredible people, going back decades, who can remind us, in their own words, that what we're part of a continuum. Their memories are powerful. They can help rethink who we are as an institution and where we want to go from here.”

The Stories We Tell
Manjapra said the idea of the exhibition came from conversations with Moore, and “batting around ideas around this question of raising consciousness” about the Black community at Tufts.

Finding kindred partners with Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives (DCA) and Tufts University Art Galleries, they centered on stories shared directly by Black executive leaders-- specifically eight people who were devoted to their day-to-day jobs, but also pressing forward ideas to make Tufts a more diverse, equitable, accessible, and just university.

“Stories are power,” said Manjapra. “Stories are empowerment. The stories we tell have a lot to do with our ethics, with who we say we are and who we want to be. What’s at the core of this project is really wanting to lift up those stories that for too long have been kept on the margins.”

And while these stories are relevant to the whole Tufts community, they are especially important to the Black community, he said. “It's life to us to tell our stories and to pass them along,” he said. “Whenever we talk about the project, there's a part of me that wells up with emotion because of the intergenerational work it conveys –that work of receiving the gift of a story from an elder and then passing it on to the youth. There's something so human about that and something so powerful. It's a beautiful thing.”

Teams from Digital Collections and Archives and the Tufts University Art Galleries created “mega panels” that highlight individual stories and that include QR codes linking to video interviews by Alonso Nichols, chief of university photography. Teams from Digital Collections and Archives and the Tufts University Art Galleries created “mega panels” that highlight individual stories and that include QR codes linking to video interviews by Alonso Nichols, chief of university photography.

Dan Santamaria, director of DCA and University Archivist, said the project connects with a mission at DCA to similarly tell as inclusive story about Tufts as possible and to raise awareness about archival resources,and while engaging an ever-widening audience. “For the past five, six years we have been giving our collections in DCA a more visible presence, not only through digitization and description online, but also by working with directly with faculty and with students,” he said.

Students in particular, he said want a better sense of Tufts' past. “They want to know what problems people were facing, how they evolved, how they compare to the issues we are all facing today. An archives-focused exhibition like this can help provide that crucial framing and context. It demonstrates, in a very visible and direct way, the impact of having strong Black leaders at the institution and what that’s meant for Tufts.”

The story of Black leadership begins with Bernie Harleston, H98, dean of Arts and Sciences from 1970 to 1980 (when he joined the psychology department in 1956, he was the first Black faculty member in a tenure-track position in the School of Arts and Sciences.)  He would lead the way for other influential Black leaders on the Hill: Bobbie Knable, dean of students; Marilyn Glater, associate dean in the School of Arts and Sciences; Joanne Berger-Sweeney, dean of Arts and Sciences; and Lisa Coleman, emerita director of the Africana Center and former executive director of the Office for Institutional Diversity.

Representing the Health Sciences campus is Lonnie Norris, DG80dean emeritus of the School of Dental Medicine; and Vivian Pinn, H93, assistant dean of student affairs at the School of Medicine. David R. Harris provides a university-wide perspective on changes at Tufts from his most recent vantage point as provost from 2012 to 2018.

“These are people who made Tufts the place that it is today and who, each in their own way, laid the groundwork for others to follow them,” said Santamaria. “The archival research conducted as part of this project really emphasized that these are not supplementary or side-stories. The Tufts that we know today would not exist without these leaders.”

The Power of Portraits

Working with Jennifer Munson, AG97 (MFA), a lecturer at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and a former senior designer in the Exhibitions and Design Department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the archives and gallery teams created an exhibit built around “mega panels” that feature oversized archival photograph portraits. The installation also includes QR codes that link to video interviews, conducted by Nichols, that can be watched on a smartphone, or on the project website.

Dina Deitsch, director and chief curator of the Tufts University Art Galleries, said the intentional shaping of the exhibit around archival photos of individuals responded to the larger issue of representation at the university. She is chair of the Public Art Committee, one of five workstreams of the university’s Tufts as an Anti-racist Institution initiative. One key finding: a university-wide audit revealed all portraits displayed on the Tufts campuses were of white people, and, with the exception of one woman, all were of men.

That context, said Deitsch, in part informed the artistic direction of Leading While Black. "I knew that our impact would be strongest if the exhibit had a strong portrait component,” she said. “This lack of wider representation is one of the things we had to fix, and so I saw this as a smart answer to that problem.

A student passes a portrait of Vivian Pinn, H93, former assistant dean of student affairs at Tufts University School of Medicine. Photo: Alonso NicholsA student passes a portrait of Vivian Pinn, H93, former assistant dean of student affairs at Tufts University School of Medicine. Photo: Alonso Nichols

“There’s a lot to be said about showing history that can also inform the future,” she added. “We are made up of where we come from. That's what racial reckoning is all about; today our past is an open book. The more we can make that past public and accessible, the better for everybody.”

Making the past accessible is exactly DCA’s mission, according to Santamaria. Research for the project was a major undertaking. Deena Bhanarai, A21, a master’s degree candidate in history at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and DCA’s lead researcher on the project, worked through hundreds of files, documents, and photographs in archives to bring each person’s story into focus and engage viewers. Photographs comprise a sizeable component of the exhibition.

“There is a great photo of Bernie Harleston with students from an early Pre-College Enrichment Project in the 1960s where they brought in students from Mississippi and Boston, which he mentions during his interview,” Santamaria said. “My favorite picture in all of the Tufts University Archives, though, is of Bernie Harleston carrying his son over his shoulder and looking at his watch; he looks like a harried parent, though much cooler than most of us can hope to be. But he’s also literally carrying the future on his shoulder with his son. Photos like that are powerful —they really help people connect to these leaders as individuals and illustrate the personal stories and the challenges they faced in addition to the difficult work of moving the university forward.”

Manjapra also regards the project as a historian, his eyes always on both the singular event and its place in a timeline extending both to the past and the future.

“I see this project as a kind of unearthing,” he said. “It’s different from discovering something. We know that this is part of our history. We just don’t recognize that it's part of our history. There is value to the community that we live in now, and that we are shaping, to recognize what we have otherwise been ignoring. It is a way of growing and expanding our minds and changing our consciousness. That’s very powerful work.”

The exhibit runs through the summer. Satellite portions of the Leading While Black exhibition will be installed at the School of Medicine, the School of Dental Medicine, and at the Africana Center.

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