Vassar-West Point Initiative to discuss history of civil rights

As every former AP US History student knows—me and the emotional scars of 20 hours of straight studying included—the summer months are riddled with important dates. As the weather heats up, apparently so did American history, as we yet again celebrated the signing of Declaration of Independence, the declarations of both war and peace in the First World War, the signing of the G.I. Bill, even the anniversary of man’s first steps on the Moon. While these are all burned in our memories, two key dates may have fallen by the wayside: July 26, 1948 and August 28, 1963.

The former is the date of President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 that desegregated the Armed Forces, an event that many historians consider the first major victory in the civil rights struggle that would rock the nation in the coming decades. The latter was the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech.

While both of these events may seem far removed from us, their 65th and 50th anniversaries are important reminders of our nation’s difficult road to a “more perfect union” and our understanding of race in America. On Sept. 26 and 27 the Vassar-West Point Initiative will commemorate these two important milestones and engage in critical, in-depth conversations about the progress and future of racial equality in civilian society as well as within the U.S. military.

West Point cadets have been coming to Vassar for the past two years now, attending classes and spending the night in student housing. The activities for next week’s visit will be more involved though. Don’t worry, the cadets will still roam campus in uniform, it’s just the why and where that will be enhanced this trip. Instead of simply having cadets visiting campus, attending classes and rooming with Vassar students for two days, Professor Höhn and Lt. Col. Molin, together with student leaders Jackie Parziale ’14, Caleb Northrop ’14 and myself have prepared an all-day event engaging the campus on issues of civil rights and race relations.

For the first time as well, Vassar students will host cadets from a wide variety of majors and student organizations that are engaged in critical thinking around race in civilian and military life. Cadets majoring in History and a group from a seminar entitled “Social Inequality, Race, Class and Identity” will be paired with Vassar students. Also part of the pairing system are cadet representatives from the esteemed organizations of The National Society of Black Engineers and the African American Arts Forum. In the past, the majority of participating cadets were from the History and English Departments, so I am enthusiastic and excited to see a greater variety of interests represented in the upcoming exchange with West Point and believe that new voices will contribute to a more astute and far-reaching discussion of racial equality in America.

The central focus of both days and a major source of inspiration for the Initiative, are photographs of the March on Washington by award-winning photographer Leonard Freed. Freed is an internationally acclaimed artist, born and raised in New York, who had made the Hudson Valley his home. His images of the March on Washington give viewers a sense of the sights of the day from the perspective of the protesters in the crowd, not the civil rights leaders on the stage. Prior to coming to Vassar’s Palmer Gallery in the College Center, “This The Day” had been shown at the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, and had been reviewed by the New York Times , the Washington Post, Slate and Magnum. The Palmer Gallery will open the exhibit with a reception on Sept. 26 at 6:30 p.m. Leonard Freed’s widow, Brigitte Freed, who also protested at the March, will be there to greet students, cadets and members of the community.

In order to provide a context for the exhibition and give students greater insight into the larger historical significance of the desegregation of the military and the March on Washington, there will also be a short lecture by Paul Farber of Haverford College at 5 p.m. in the Villard Room. Farber co-curated the exhibition with Brigitte Freed, and his brief lecture, “In Leonard Freed’s Footsteps: Photography and Cultural Memory from the Berlin Wall to the March on Washington,” will discuss the artistic implications of socially conscious photojournalism.

Following his introductory remarks, a panel with four local veterans of the March on Washington will share their memories of the event. Vassar students should come to this panel discussion because they will be granted a unique opportunity to meet and discuss the Civil Rights Movement with veterans of the March. Mae Parker Harris, a Poughkeepsie resident, will be discussing her motivations for joining the March and her thoughts on the larger implications of that day.

Poughkeepsie-based Spoken Word Poet Bettina Gold Wilkerson will also perform an original work about the history and future of civil rights to engage the minds of the audience. Aside from my own personal excitement at the idea of listening to spoken word and its artistic connection to the exhibit, I am hopeful that this engagement with the Poughkeepsie community will inspire more people from the local community to attend and contribute to these events. These varied events have been supported and helped by Vassar’s Office of the President, the American Studies, Africana Studies, and History Departments, as well as financing from the Mellon Foundation.

While it may appear that these events all focus on celebrating past achievements, the critical second component will come through discussions and in-class participation on September 27. In preparation, cadets and Vassar students will read scholarship by seminar leaders, Colonel Ty Seidule from West Point (“Black Power cadets at West Points in the 1970s”) and VC Professor Maria Höhn (“Black Power GIs and racism in the military, 1970s”). Discussions will focus on progress that has been made in the military and the many challenges that remain, but students will also explore the institutional and structural differences in the military and civilian life when it comes to implementing equality.

Professor Paul Farber will speak about the imagery of the GI in photography and in the struggle for civil rights, and Major Andrew Forney will report on the military academy’s study trip to civil rights sites in the South that he led last year.

As is the goal of the Vassar-West Point Initiative, the group will analyze those ways in which they, as the future leaders of both civilian and military communities, can push for inclusivity and equality in America.

Although the event can never mirror the truly awesome size and scope of The March on Washington, the student leaders of the West Point-Vassar Initiative see the coming week’s events as a unique opportunity to expand our student base.  For the first time, more than 30 cadets and five officers will be visiting Vassar’s campus. If you are interested in joining the initiative or if you would like to host a cadet, please contact Caleb Northrop ’14 or Jacqueline Parziale ’14.

As one of the Initiative’s newer members, having joined in the aftermath of protests by the Westboro Baptist Church at both of our campuses, I believe that the Vassar-West Point Initiative informs me in ways that no academic class or student organization on Vassar’s campus alone could ever accomplish. By talking to the cadets about their experiences, their plans and their goals for America I feel that I’ve gained a perspective that few civilians are able to get on their own.

As a person who values knowledge and demands that all people be respected, participating in these events have only enhanced my understanding of America, how race relations in America have progressed in the last decades but are still far from solved and how I can play a role in improving the issues of race in all areas of American society.

Even students who chose not to host a cadet or participate in the exchange with West Point can participate in these events and reap the benefits of both institutions. All of these events are open to the public and the Initiative encourages all students to attend, and even so much as engaging a cadet in the Retreat may teach both of you more than you may expect.


—Bethan Johnson ’15 is an English and history major.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *