The Meaning of Black History Month
at The City College of New York
By Gregory H. Williams,
President, The City College of New York
On January 20, 2009, more than 1,000 people gathered in The Great Hall of The City College of New York to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as President of The United States of America, joining in the spirit of hope and transformation with millions of people across the nation and around the world. As the child of a Black father and a white mother myself, descended from slave and master, I never thought I would see this day.
This was a day when we all stood on the shoulders of so many who have fought to make true the words of America’s great promise—that all men and women are created equal. I am proud that City College has played an important role in this fight.
In fact CCNY and the Harlem renaissance grew up together. Just two years ago we marked the 100th anniversary of our land-marked campus in Harlem, and so many of the lions of African-American history are an inseparable part of our own history. A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., attended classes here. Martin Luther King spoke at our commencement in 1963, only a few hours after Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi, and reminded us that we must learn to live together, or we will die alone. David Paterson—the first Black governor of New York—often spoke to our students, as have the Rev. Calvin Butts, Roger Wilkins, Percy Sutton, Vernon Jordan, and of course Congressman Charles Rangel.
The great scholar and civil rights activist Kenneth Clark, the African-American psychologist whose groundbreaking work on race and identity figured so prominently in Brown v. Board of Education, taught here for nearly 40 years. Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, renowned author Walter Mosley, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell all graduated from CCNY. Today, the college proudly houses the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies, and The Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service, and we are with several partners developing a Center for the Study of Harlem.
There are far too many African-Americans who are American heroes to name, or to celebrate in a single month. But I would like to end on a slightly personal note.
In the late nineteen-twenties, the great scholar and critic Alain Locke, the man who coined the term “Harlem Renaissance,” described Harlem as “another Statue of Liberty on the landward side of New York.”
My father, James “Buster” Williams, grew up “colored” in the first half of the 20th century. He struggled under the yoke of racism, and fought his own personal demon of alcoholism. For all that, he had the good fortune to be, for a year, a student of Alain Locke’s at Howard University.
One of my dad’s most prized possessions—and now one of mine—is a warm, encouraging letter from Locke. This now fragile, hand-written and framed letter is the first thing that I have unpacked and displayed in every office I have ever had over the last 40 years.
A little more than eight years ago, it moved me very much to bring it home, to place it in the office of the President of The City College of New York.
It’s difficult to believe in these days of financial crisis that this stunning campus, this college, was built by the city of New York to provide a world-class education to the children of the whole people—the children of the poor, of the working class, of all of our nation’s minorities, of our newest Americans. And it has stood for a century right here in Harlem, contributing substantially—I am very sure—to Locke’s “other Statue of Liberty.” As we face the challenges of this new time, under this new President, it is my hope and belief that we will be up to this legacy, and to his promise.#
Gregory H. Williams is the author of Life on the Color Line: A True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black, published by Penguin Group.