This past Thursday, Sept. 26, Vassar played host to a panel of speakers and a poet in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. This event was organized in tandem with the photo exhibit “This is the Day: Leonard Freed’s Photographs of the 1963 March on Washington” currently showing at the James W. Palmer Gallery. The exhibition kicked off in the Villard Room with an opening event.
The program began with a lecture on photographer Leonard Freed by Haverford College professor Paul Farber, followed by a panel of Poughkeepsie residents who participated in the March. The program concluded with a spoken word performance by Poughkeepsie poet Bettina Gold Wilkerson.
Members of the Vassar and United States Military Academy at West Point communities, as well as the Poughkeepsie community as a whole, attended. Although a month late—the March took place on Aug. 28, 1963—Vassar celebrated the stories of participants of one of the largest political rallies for civil rights in American history.
Professor of History on the Marion Musser Lloyd ’32 and Chair of History and International Studies Maria Höhn orchestrated the event. She said of its inception, “I am a friend of Brigitte Freed’s—the widow of the photographer—and when she told me a few years back that she was putting together an exhibition of photographs of the March on Washington, I was intrigued.”
She added, “This was such a momentous event in our country’s history, and I appreciated her willingness to go through her husband’s huge photo archive to curate this exhibition. Of course, I right away asked her whether we could bring the pictures to Vassar as well. She was delighted to do so.”
Scholar of American and Urban Studies and Visiting Assistant Professor of Writing and Fellow in the Writing Program at Haverford College, Paul Farber, started the event with a lecture on Leonard Freed. Farber, a co-curator of the photo exhibit, discussed the importance of “cultural memory” through photography. Through the process of photographing the March, Freed was partaking in “engaged observation,” as he was not only documenting as a reporter—but as a fellow participant of the historic event.
Höhn said of Freed’s photography, “My own interest in Freed’s work grew mostly due to my research on black GIs stationed in Germany. He took some amazing photos, and his images really spoke to me.”
She continued, “I was particularly taken with one of the images Freed took in 1961 at the Berlin Wall; Paul Farber talked at length about that.”
The photography in the exhibition showed a collective gathering of a community who had the same beliefs and hope for the country. In the photographs, Farber talked about how he saw no faces, individual identities or characteristics; only a sea of people. He discussed how the March was a political rally that called people from all over the country for a united stand for change. Freed’s photography, according to Farber, allows viewers to see that activists Marched as a collective party on that historic day 50 years ago.
The program then shifted to a panel featuring three people who were at the March on Washington. Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of English and Africana Studies, Eve Dunbar, served as the moderator for the panel.
Höhn commented on Dunbar’s participation, “Professor Dunbar and I have taught together in American Studies, so the two of us explored how having the exhibition at Vassar could be combined with a panel of veterans of the March.”
“Personally, I was tremendously moved by [panelist] Leon Watkins. There was such a gauzy depiction of the March in so much of the media this summer. It was good to be reminded by Leon that people were actually afraid to get on those buses, that it was dangerous for them to board buses and go to DC,” Höhn recalled of the panelists.
She continued, “I thought the panel was amazing, it wasn’t just celebratory, but had awkward moments and silences.”
Dunbar agreed, “I wish the panelists that I was asked to moderate had been a bit more conversational—with me, the audience, and one another—but I think their discordant messages actually illustrate how difficult racial history is to overcome and discuss for many people.”
She continued, reflecting on the responses she thought would come from those who attended the event or the photography show. “I hope the audience had the opportunity to visit the Palmer and see one man’s amazing photographs of a key moment in American history. Moreover, their responses, which ranged from oblivious joy to long-lasting trauma and anger, were very telling about what 50 years can and cannot do to American hearts and minds,” she noted.
The event ended on a more artistic note with a spoken word poem by Bettina Gold Wilkerson. According to Höhn, “My husband is really good friends with Bettina Gold Wilkerson; it was his idea to invite ‘Gold’ and I am really glad that we did.”
She went on, “I thought she was amazing, and really moved the audience.”
Numerous Vassar students were in attendance to this event. Audience member Dalia Grinan ’17 said, “I was interested in going to the talk because I wanted to learn more about the photographer and why he took photos of the March. I was also really interested in hearing what the panel had to say about their experiences at the March.”
“I think the talk was very interesting, what I got out of it was a better sense of what it was like to be there and I definitely want to look for Leonard Freed’s book Black in White America,” Grinan added.
Alejandro McGhee ’16 said of his experience, “I went to the lecture because I care deeply about civil rights history. I thought it was a great event that highlighted the nuances of civil rights struggle.”
According to Höhn, “I was hoping that the lecture, panel and opening at the Palmer would be empowering to young people today, to help them understand how ‘people power’ or ‘grassroots democracy’ was such a vital part of moving our country forward.”
“And while the event was meant to celebrate the marchers, and the March, it was also a time to reflect on how far we still have to go as a country,” Höhn remarked.
The photo exhibit “This is the Day: Leonard Freed’s Photographs of the 1963 March on Washington” is at the James W. Palmer Gallery in Main Building until Oct. 12.