Reflecting on the Legacy of Black Leadership at Tufts

In February, the Leading While Black project will honor eight luminaries who transformed governance and advanced equity and excellence at the university over the past 50 years
The Leading While Black project reflects on the horizons of executive leadership at Tufts.
Leading While Black reflects on the horizons of executive leadership at Tufts and consists of multiple parts, including conversations and a multimedia art exhibit at Tisch Library. Photos: Courtesy Tufts Digital Collections and Archives
January 10, 2022

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One of the most important aspects of Katrina Moore’s work as senior director of the Africana Center at Tufts is helping students understand the meaning of the word legacy. She wants to make them aware of the foundational work by Black students and faculty throughout history so today’s students can position their experience within that context.

Raising awareness of that legacy is the mission of Leading While Black: A Legacy of Transformational Black Leadership at Tufts University, led by Moore along with Kris Manjapra, professor in the Department of History, and Alonso Nichols, chief of photography at Tufts.

Leading While Black reflects on the horizons of executive leadership at Tufts and consists of multiple parts, including conversations on Feb. 19 with the influential Black leaders at Tufts who transformed governance, advanced equity, traversed boundaries, and enhanced excellence for generations of students, faculty, and staff; these conversations will be available to the wider community online. It also includes a multimedia archival exhibit, a collaboration by the staff of Tufts Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University Art Galleries, and the project team. Located at Tisch Library, the exhibit integrates images, narratives, and video portraits of the luminaries to highlight their contributions and recollections.

Their life stories exemplify major themes of American history and the struggle for social justice, such as the Great Migration, the educational legacy of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and involvement in the civil rights and women’s rights movements—experiences that amplified their ability to mentor and inspire all members of the Tufts community, especially the underserved and underrepresented.

“This has been a beautiful, creative collaboration by colleagues from a lot of different offices at Tufts,” said Manjapra. “What's been remarkable to me about the project is the synergy, where you can really feel people bringing their best expertise to the mix. The project has become more than the sum of the parts, more than anything I could have expected.”

The eight honorees include Bernard W. Harleston, H98, dean of the faculty, School of Arts and Sciences, 1970-1980; Vivian W. Pinn, H93, associate dean for student affairs, Tufts University School of Medicine, 1974-1982 and associate professor, 1970-1982; Bobbie Knable, dean of students at the School of Arts and Sciences, 1980-2000; Marilyn Glater, associate dean of the faculty and dean for natural and social sciences at the School of Arts and Sciences, 1994-1997, and associate dean of Liberal Arts and Jackson College at the School of Arts and Sciences, 1990-1994; Lonnie H. Norris, DG80, M99P, A01P, dean of Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, 1995-2011, and professor from 1980-2011; Lisa M. Coleman, executive director of the Office of Institutional Diversity, 2007-2009, and director of the Africana Center, 1999-2007; Joanne Berger-Sweeney, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, 2010-2014; and David R. Harris, provost and senior vice president, 2012-2018.

Leading While Black gives us the opportunity to talk about the stories of alumni and faculty whose work may or may not have been recognized while they were here, to inspire and give students a sense of what their role can be while they're here,” Moore said. “It allows us to show the leadership over the years that led us to where we are today.”

Nichols has worked for Tufts for about 16 years and, during that time, had the privilege of working with five of the honorees. As chief of photography at Tufts, he spent several weeks this semester traveling around the region to meet with each of them and capture their thoughts and memories through photos and videos, which will be displayed at the exhibit. To him, Leading While Black presents an important opportunity to tap into the perspective of these individuals as to what diversity work was like during their Tufts’ tenures, compared to what and where it is now, more than a year after President Anthony Monaco launched efforts to make Tufts an anti-racist institution.

“When I was interviewing Marilyn Glater, to hear her reflect on what that work was like 20 years ago, and the limits of our ability to make institutional change, was really powerful,” said Nichols. “Her perspective as someone who knows our institution can lead us in our newer endeavors to further the goal of diversity.”

Manjapra and Moore also feel personal connections to some of the honorees, such as Joanne Berger-Sweeney, who established the Race and Ethnic Studies Working Group that eventually transformed into the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora which Manjapra chaired until the end of 2021, and Lisa Coleman, who led the Africana Center before Moore. But, Manjapra said, Leading While Black also matters to him personally in ways he didn’t realize before.

“For example, now I realize that Bernard Harleston created the first cluster hire of faculty of color at Tufts over the course of multiple years in the 1970s,” said Manjapra. “That was the prototype, and we are still working off that model 50 years later. The power of this project is to better see the long-lasting, generational impact when we change and diversify who the leaders are at a university.”

The personal portraits that Nichols produced along with the conversational nature of the Feb. 19 event combine to humanize the educators featured in the project. Nichols noted that when people hold academic positions such as dean or provost, there may be a perception they’re unreachable. But this project puts their achievements within reach for others in the Tufts community.

“The beauty of the video portraits and what came across to me is that these are people sharing who they are,” said Moore. “All of the video stories contain this desire to help shape the processes and policies and to help Tufts become an anti-racist institution. They were doing that work back then, so our honoring them now is bringing it full circle.”

Manjapra said the Leading While Black event and exhibit are about righting previous wrongs and correcting failures of the institution to recognize fully and appreciate the contributions of these eight luminaries during their time at Tufts.

“This redresses, frankly, a failure at Tufts of imagining who we are and misrecognizing the deep contribution of Black leaders at Tufts over the last five decades,” said Manjapra. “Redressing that misrecognition helps us reorient our sense of what we can become. That's what's exciting to me is a way of finding in our history the resources for a more visionary approach to our future.”

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.