Skip to main content

“Necessary Trouble”: Remarks by Drew Faust at the Harvard Black Alumni Weekend

Wasserstein Hall, Harvard Law School

Thank you, Lawrence Adjah. And to Cheryl Joyner, and Kimberly Celestine, and Candice Player, Justin Walker White, and so many others who have made this weekend possible and really to all of you here tonight, thank you for coming back and thank you for your continuing connection to Harvard. It’s such a privilege for me to be here and to be part of this celebration of black alumni and of what you mean to this University.

And tonight we have a lot to celebrate. One hundred and fifty years ago this year, Harvard’s time without black students came to an end, beginning a trail of milestones once unimaginable — you all being Exhibit A: the nearly 10,000 black alumni of Harvard, which is not exactly what the lyricist of “10,000 Men of Harvard” had in mind when he wrote the song in 1914! A lot has changed. One alumnus, who, as far as I’m aware, is absent tonight, was once quoted in The New York Times as saying, “It’s encouraging. The fact that I’ve been elected shows a lot of progress.” Now that was in 1990, and he was talking about his election to the Harvard Law Review as its first black president. He went on, of course, to become the first black president of the United States. And at Harvard, at least in this case, he helped lead the way. And yet, going back to that 1990 interview, one has the eerie sense that at the same time, so little has changed. Of his election to the law review, Barack Obama, then still a student, said, and I’m quoting him: “It’s important that stories like mine aren’t used to say that everything is OK for blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don’t get a chance.”

The turmoil and anger around recent national events has reminded us how terribly apt that statement still is. Even as we mark the achievements of the 10,000, and the inspirational W.E.B. Du Bois medalists who were honored here last week by the Hutchins Center, we know that the road to social justice remains long, and difficult. And we know the courage and commitment that it requires. Du Bois medalist and legendary Civil Rights leader John Lewis said in Sanders Theater just about a week ago, “I got into trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”

You are here, and I am here, because of people in Harvard’s own imperfect past who were willing to get into necessary trouble. And so as we celebrate you, and Harvard, and our bright possibilities, let us also celebrate the sense of purpose of so many who preceded us:

• The fugitive slaves who once climbed through the trap door that a Latin professor built into the hallway of the Beck-Warren House, now our humanities center. They entered a door not to Harvard, which was closed to African-American students until 1865, but a door to freedom and to a new life. 

• And let us remember Edward Smyth Jones, son of slaves and a published poet, who wanted to attend Harvard so badly he walked from Indianapolis to Cambridge, where he was promptly jailed for vagrancy. That was 1910. From Cell 40 in East Cambridge Jail he wrote an ode to Harvard Square that was so impressive it landed him in Boston Latin School. But he never finished his formal education or made it to Harvard, for lack of funds.

• Let us celebrate Pauli Murray, who in 1944 was denied admission to Harvard Law School — the same law school that in 1869 was the first in the nation’s history to award a degree to an African-American male. Murray was turned away in 1944, as she put it, not because she was “brown,” but because she was female. She told the Harvard Corporation that she could either change her sex or they could change their minds. She attended Berkeley, contributed to the litigation strategy in Brown v. Board of Education, and later became the driving force behind adding sex discrimination to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, linking civil rights to women’s rights and, ultimately, to human rights. Twelve years after Murray was denied admission, Lila Fenwick — both female and brown — became the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Law School, and she went on to lead the Human Rights Division of the United Nations.

These stories all tell us what good and necessary trouble looks like. And more still was necessary.

Because even for the black students and alumni who made it through Harvard’s doors, the challenges they faced had just begun. The College’s first black graduate, Richard Greener, class of 1870, became the first black professor at the University of South Carolina, only to have the university then close its doors to blacks at the end of Reconstruction.

William Clarence Matthews, College class of 1905, now often called the Jackie Robinson of his era, was one of the great collegiate baseball players of all time — though his unflinching dignity and what one reporter called, and I’m quoting, his “queer notions of the equality of the Negro” ultimately failed to break through the color line of professional baseball. Later, as one of the most prominent black lawyers in America, he devoted his life, and I quote again, “as a Harvard man” to “bettering the condition of the black man … [who] has just as much right to play ball.”

So here we are, in 2014. But where, exactly, are we?

Looking out over this room tonight, I can attest that we have come a long way. When the Harvard College class of 2018 arrived last month on campus from 69 countries and every state in the union, that class included the most African-American students in the University’s history. And there’s David Evans — proud contributor to that achievement. And for students like Edward Smyth Jones, stymied by inadequate means, Harvard has extended its commitment to financial aid, which now supports 60 percent of our undergraduates.

But we still have a long way to go.

Only one in 10 of the Harvard faculty are black, Latino, or mixed-race. And though every year I urge the incoming freshmen to “make Harvard their own,” the members of the most diverse classes in Harvard’s history tell me this is not always easy, because they do not always feel fully included once they are here. Last spring, a moving undergraduate project about African-Americans’ experiences here called “I, Too, Am Harvard,” hit this issue on the head in a play that turned into a social media campaign that went viral, inspiring spinoffs from Oregon to Oxford.

This kind of ferment is the very reason universities have the capacity to change. Because we ask questions, because we embrace doubt, because we seek out uncomfortable truths, Harvard has propelled once-unimaginable achievements, in no small measure because of what John Hope Franklin called, and I quote him, “the role [of] African Americans … in compelling this country to live up to its professed ideals.” In other words, you know how to walk into necessary trouble: whether that is eradicating smallpox or serving the nation in the White House, explaining the cosmos, reshaping the legal and social fabric of our nation — tackling with tenacity the seemingly impossible problems, what generations of African-Americans have called “making a way out of no way.”

In the recent national conversation on race and law enforcement, I was not surprised to learn that two of the pioneering advocates of police force diversity and community policing — Lee Brown and Joseph McNamara — were both once Harvard Fellows in criminal justice and public policy. One was the son of hardscrabble black farmers, the other from a family of white New York City policemen. Both nurtured here the idea that Brown has called “the need for increased communication and interaction with the people who live or work in [a police] officer’s beat.” The need, as he reminded us on a Kennedy School panel about Ferguson last month, is to have “a partnership between the police and the public.” I cannot think of a more moving or timely example of what research universities can help to do, or of why Harvard’s diversity of people and ideas is so vitally important to its mission, and to the whole world.

So welcome back. With your commitment, and with our commitment, let’s keep making necessary trouble. And that includes making some good trouble together this weekend.

Thank you all.