This past weekend the African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College (AAAVC) hosted Triennial XI and celebrated the organization’s 30th anniversary. The focus of this year’s conference was the continuation of a history of Black activism at Vassar, and AAAVC members from across the country attended the events.
Founded in 1984, AAAVC brings together Black alumnae/i to advance the interests of both graduates and current students. Every three years the group plans an entire weekend of events to reconnect and discuss issues relevant to the Black community at Vassar. Triennial IX included a documentary screening, an open-mic night organized by the Council of Black Seniors (CBS), a panel discussion, and faculty-taught classes.
Associate Dean of the College for Campus Life and Diversity, Ed Pittman ’82, was pleased with how the weekend went and described his participation in the Triennial. “All of the events were phenomenal,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “As a black alum (‘82) and dean, I was thrilled to be in the various spaces. I connected with fellow alums who pioneered before me, reminisced with those who were my classmates as well as those I advised and supported as a dean.”
Karen Clopton ’80, a Chief Administrative Law Judge in San Francisco, sat on a panel titled, “Activism Through the Ages.” In an emailed statement, she wrote, “We highlighted how we have addressed the same issues, racial profiling, racist incidents, a safe place to be together, and a strong Africana Studies Program since 1969 when we started to have a critical mass of black students.”
Tiffany Clunie ’15, a member of CBS, appreciated the focus on the history of activism at the event. “I really enjoyed the AAAVC Triennial and felt that the the theme of reflecting on past and future activism was very well picked and so pertinent at this time in the U.S.,” she wrote in an emailed statement.
Turner spoke to Vassar’s history of Black activism, which she described as the central theme for the weekend. “Our theme was Activism Through the Ages,” she wrote. “We wanted to share the stories of the struggles and triumphs of past generations and celebrate our successes in breaking down barriers. We also wanted to provide Black alums with a forum to discuss the recent racial profiling, bias, and campus climate issues with College administrators and the role AAAVC has played in bringing about change.”
Clopton herself has continued this activism after Vassar and throughout her career. “I have engaged in activism through long standing voting and civil rights organizations, including the League of Women Voters, the Children’s Defense Fund, and the NAACP Legal and Education Defense Fund, registering voters, meeting with legislators, educating voters, advocating for good government,” she wrote.
For Turner the weekend was noteworthy for a wide variety of reasons. “This was an historic Triennial for a number of reasons,” she wrote. “First, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the founding of AAAVC. We also unveiled a new logo to commemorate that occasion. Third, the AAVC presented AAAVC with the 2015 Outstanding Service Award.”
However, Turner noted that for her the most important aspect was the presence of two historic alumnae. “[M]ost of all, we welcomed back to campus Dr. Beatrix McCleary Hamburg ‘44 and Dr. June Jackson Christmas ‘45-4,” she wrote. “Dr. Hamburg is the first self-identified Black student admitted to Vassar. Dr. Christmas was one of the only 2 Black students admitted one year later.
After graduating from Vassar, Hamburg ’44 went on to become the first Black student accepted into the Yale School of Medicine, and has held many prestigious positions in her field of psychiatry, such as DeWitt Wallace Distinguished Scholar at Cornell University and received the National Institute of Mental Health Award for Outstanding Achievement.
Christmas also had a long career in the field of medicine, where she served as commissioner of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Alcoholism Services for the City of New York and in many other public policy positions. Her influence led the Africana Studies department to name its annual award to distinguished graduating seniors the June Jackson Christmas Prize.
The accomplishments of these alumnae were recognized at Triennial XI. “We dedicated the AAAVC award to their legacy,” Turner noted. “We wanted to celebrate and honor our past, and address current issues so our future will be stronger. We accomplished that.”
Pittman also discussed the importance of the history of Black students’ legacies. “[C]ertainly sharing with alums what Vassar strives to do to support Black students in particular was rewarding while at sometimes challenging—because we must honestly face the shortcomings with respect to black students,” he explained. “The element of history is so important to moving forward and alums who come back to campus contribute greatly to that narrative as they interact with students, administrators and faculty.”
Clunie acknowledged the importance of this legacy. “There was also a great sense of community throughout the weekend, and it was beautiful to see Vassar Alum[s] of color get together to celebrate the 30th year of AAAVC,” she wrote. “I especially appreciated the fact that every alum I met was willing and open to provide current and/or future support to the students on this campus.”
Continuing relationships between students and alumnae/i is a key point for Pittman. “The connections between black students and black alumni is particularly important,” he explained. “The historic traditions and movements among black students, spanning more than 60 years, is integral to sustaining the diversity at Vassar.”
This connection was part of the reason that Turner joined the AAAVC. “Early on, I wanted to stay connected to the other Black students that I was closest when I was a student,” she explained. “I also wanted to support current students and faculty. More recently, I wanted to help revitalize the group and broaden our voice.”
Clopton’s engagement with AAAVC and with this year’s Triennial is due in large part to her concern with addressing multiple forms of racism. “I am very concerned that we continue to reinvent responses to institutional racism instead of institutionalizing equity and inclusion,” she wrote. “Implicit bias recognition, education, and elimination must become part of the academy through the curriculum, student and faculty training and orientation, colloquia, and multi-disciplinary approaches. It has to be on-going and documenting and educating about the past is key to moving forward into the future and not be doomed to repeat failed policies or lack thereof.”
One highlight for Turner was a comment from Christmas which synthesized the experience at Triennial. “Dr. Christmas…upon reflecting on the weekend said ‘Thank God Vassar has been changed by us!’ That pretty much sums it up for me too.”