Students present research on Howard Thurman’s legacy

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Four students presented their research on the legacy of Rev. Howard Thurman at Vassar College on Feb. 15, the first event of the Vassar Inclusive History initiative. The presentation honored his contributions to the campus through his speeches made during the mid-20th century and also touched on the life of his daughter, Olive Thurman, who was one of the first Black students to attend the college. 

The Vassar students conducted their research on Thurman during the Fall 2023 intensive, AFRS-282: “Thurman, Blackness, and Vassar.” The course was taught by Religion professor and Director of Engaged Pluralism Jonathon Kahn. 

“I’ve always been fascinated with Howard Thurman,” said Kahn. “As the Director of Engaged Pluralism, I like to teach an intensive that is really trying to very directly get at questions about what belonging looks like at the College.”

Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.

Thurman, a prolific Black preacher whose teaching would later inspire Martin Luther King Jr., first spoke at Vassar’s chapel in 1928, seven years before the college was officially integrated. Over the following few decades, Thurman continued to visit Poughkeepsie to deliver speeches and create an exchange program for students between Howard University and Vassar. 

Croix Horsley ’26, a religion major, focused his research on how Thurman’s speeches operated as a form of activism. Depicting his work in a video reflection, Horsley argued that Thurman’s religious teachings should be viewed as a catalyst for changes surrounding racially discriminatory admissions policies at Vassar. 

“Thurman’s very presence at the College and his influential strength to a morality served as a distinct mode of activism,” said Horsley in his documentary. “His approach suggests a belief in a transformational path of personal connection, dialogue and moral reflection. Thurman’s choice to engage with Vassar, a predominantly white institution, was in itself a statement. By being present and sharing his perspectives, he set in to challenge the status quo and contributed to a broader conversation about racial inclusion and understanding.”

Using The Miscellany News’ articles archive, Horsley uncovered some of the topics that Thurman covered in his speeches to the student body: the potential for social withdrawal as a result of education, introspection and singular purpose. 

Like Horsley, Maya Winter ’26, a Russian studies major, utilized newspaper archives to dive deeper into the connection between Thurman and Vassar. Centering her research around articles published about Vassar by the Black press in the 1920s through the 1960s, Winter investigated the College’s past policies surrounding admission of students of color. Winter’s research culminated in the creation of a website which features all of the articles that she analyzed for her project.

“As a white student taking this class, I really didn’t want to speak over Black voices,” said Winter. “So I really wanted to focus on uncovering Black voices and their perspectives on Vassar, and that’s what led me to create a database that featured those voices.”

Clara Alger/The Miscellany News.

Framing Thurman’s teachings within the context of his own experience, religion major Jarod Hudson ’26 considered how the experience of low income students at Vassar can relate to Thurman’s discussion of the terms of survival in his book “Jesus and the Disinherited.” By considering how the racial violence depicted in Thurman’s work relates to the many forms of violence associated with poverty and addiction, Hudson explained to the audience that he found a way to relate to Thurman’s teachings. 

“Under what terms is survival at Vassar possible for low income students?” asked Hudson in his presentation. “The answer is kind of simple: love, forgiveness, unity. In a piece from [Thurman’s] ‘Meditations of the Heart’ collection, he writes, ‘To be in unity with the spirit is to be in unity with one’s fellows.’ We achieve closeness to God by being in communion with other human beings, different as they may be from ourselves, including the very rich people who I once thought to be so opposite of me.”

Inspired by the lessons in Howard’s works, Hudson suggested that in order to create institutional change that supports low income students, anger must be shifted away from students and to those who perpetuate Vassar’s status as an “elite space.”

Rather than focusing on Thurman’s work, Katie Varon ’24, who is majoring in political science with a correlate sequence in Religion, studied Thurman’s daughter Olive’s experience at Vassar. Varon found that Olive, a member of Vassar’s Class of 1948, was an influential part of the student body, joining many organizations during her time on campus, including the Vassar College Intercultural Alliance, the Student Liberal Association and The Miscellany News

“Olive was an active member in the life of Vassar College, forcing her classmates and professors to see her as the smart, talented Black leader she was,” said Varon in her presentation. “There’s a whole other conversation we could have about the way Black people are expected to patiently educate white people all while being exceptional themselves, just to get a shred of decency in return. And I think that’s a legitimate conversation to have.”

The research presentations were followed by a panel discussion that gave audience members—including Olive Thurman’s son, Anton Wong—the opportunity to ask the students questions. Students were asked about their research process, what skills they learned and broader questions about the legacy of Vassar’s past racist and discriminatory practices.

“It’s important to promote this history because even though it’s not the most glamorous side of Vassar, it’s important for us to recognize our history and how we got to the point we are today,” said Winter.

The event concluded with remarks from Eric Wilson, a member of the Vassar Class of 1976 and the Co-chair of the African American Alumnae of Vassar College, who congratulated the four students on their research. 

“I was so excited to come up here for this panel discussion, and I haven’t been the least bit disappointed,” said Wilson. “You guys are the Vassar students that I went to school with 50 years ago. I’m very proud of each of you.”

One Comment

  1. was Howard Thurman paid for his work at vassar and if so was he paid more than female teachers of that time, c.1928 ?

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