BY ANNAMARIE WIRE ’22
Over the weekend, Black Mount Holyoke alumnae from across the country and around the world returned to campus to participate in the Alumnae Association’s 15th triennial Black Alumnae Conference. This conference was of special importance this year, as it coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Association for Pan-African Unity (APAU), formerly the Afro-American Society, and of the founding of the Betty Shabazz Cultural Center. It was also the first-ever Black Alumnae Conference live-streamed internationally to countries in Africa and the Caribbean, as well as in the U.S.
Over 75 alumnae arrived for the conference, which took place Friday through Sunday. The event featured several panels where alumnae spoke on topics ranging from “Life after MHC” and “Power Down, Find Your Happy” to “The State of Black Women in America.”
“The goal of this year’s conference was to look into black women’s leadership and activism,” said C. Dale Gadsden ’84, one of the co-chairs of the conference. “In order to get [the Betty Shabazz House and the APAU], black women had to be active on this campus.”
Throughout the weekend, alumnae were encouraged to share stories of leadership and activism on campus. According to Gadsden, during the 1960s and ’70s, Black students had to be especially vocal in their efforts to effect change, sitting on committees and working with the administration to address the expressed needs of the community.
According to Mount Holyoke’s Diversity and Inclusion timeline, in January 1968, the Afro-American community organized Mount Holyoke’s first sit-in on the steps of Mary Lyon Hall to demand a space made specially for the Black community to congregate. Earlier, in 1967, the Afro-American Association had submitted their proposal for a center to support the needs of Black students. After several protests, they were given Woodbridge Hall for that purpose. Originally bought by the College in 1916 as excess student housing, Woodbridge Hall functioned as the Black Cultural Center until it burned down in 1969. The Betty Shabazz Cultural Center was then moved to Dunlap Place, where it stands today.
“We want the students that are currently here to learn how this all came about. Many of them come in and see the house, but really don’t know what the history of it was,” said Gadsden. “We want to go back to those roots, and begin to think about what it means to be active. Does it have to be adversarial, or can it be a confrontation that leads to a conversation that leads to change?”
In panels such as “The State of Black Women in America,” led by Rochelle Calhoun ’84, conference attendees tackled these questions head-on, discussing the best ways to engage in activism and reflecting a diversity of opinions, allowing all present to express their opinions and share examples from their lives.
“As we were talking about change, and talking about the traditional avenues of powers, I start[ed] thinking, ‘what have I done to make a difference?’ Because sometimes, it’s as simple as that,” said Karlene Ferron FP ’06. “If they don’t create a space for you at the table, you sit at a table by yourself and create, as if you own the building.”
In addition to historical activism, attendees discussed the future of advocacy and diversity on Mount Holyoke’s Campus, including the appointment of Kijua Sanders-McMurtry as Mount Holyoke’s first-ever vice president for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer. In her welcome speech to the conference, Sanders-McMurtry invited attendees to share their ideas for fostering “inclusive excellence” on campus. “My role exists because of people like Hortense Parker, the first known Black student to be educated at Mount Holyoke, who made the solitary trek to integrate places like Mount Holyoke,” said Sanders-McMurtry. “Black people knew then that the mechanism for diminishing the notions of our inferiority were rooted in our quest for an education.”
Vera Stewart-Franklin ’73 is happy about Sanders-McMurtry’s appointment and her work since. “A lot of colleges aren’t doing that,” she said.
At the heart of the conference was not only a shared spirit of activism, but also an intergenerational pride in a Mount Holyoke education. “It’s a reunion,” said Ruth Bass-Green, former Dean of Sophomore Studies and Multicultural Education. “It’s an affirmation of Mount Holyoke and the way women and women of color are supposed to be treated.”
“Seeing Black Alumnae succeed and prosper in often male-dominated spaces is amazing. [It’s an opportunity] to learn and grow from their struggles,” said Sarah Shuler ’20, one of 35 current students who attended the conference. “[Hearing] how they struggled [at Mount Holyoke], because they did struggle, as well is always enlightening and inspiring,” added Mya Wright ’21.
In addition to the students and faculty that attended the conference, several of the attendees brought guests and friends to join the discussions. “My daughter and my grandson are here [today] too, so we have three generations on this campus,” said Eloise Skelton ’73. “There were times when I hated the liberal arts, but because of the mandate to learn different things [...] I believe the first thing you should learn to do is think.”
Gadsden spoke to the importance of this conference and the common experience many attendees share as Black alumnae. “Black women on this campus, we’re not separate, and we revel in it,” said Gadsden. “You hear from all these women in the ’70s, they had a hard time but you hear them saying how much they appreciate and enjoy the education they got here. We are all passionate alums. We all give up time this weekend to come back here because this place means something to us. That’s what’s important to me. Coming together like this.”