Last year, Rakiya Mohamed ’18 of Auburn, Maine, found a big plastic box in the Chase Hall home of the Office of Intercultural Education. It contained old photographs and documents — portraits of Bates’ first black graduates, pictures of student life from the 1970s, and the original constitution for Bates’ Afro-American Society, founded in 1971.
Mohamed felt she was holding a direct connection to the past in her hands.
“It feels like this is a historic moment to find these now,” Mohamed said, “but they weren’t history to the people who took these photos.”
On Monday, some of those photos were blown up and displayed in Chase Lounge during a kick-off reception for the Unity Conference, an annual celebration of the black community at Bates.
For Bates students, the conference brings past and present came together. History comes alive, too.
John Jenkins ’74, a founding member of the Afro-American Society who appeared in several photos, stopped by campus for a discussion on Tuesday. He was joined by Professor of Religious Studies Marcus Bruce ’77, Associate Professor of Politics Leslie Hill, and Associate Dean of Students James Reese.
They gathered with students to discuss their time as students, faculty, and administrators, and how the experiences of black students have changed and stayed the same. Bruce and Jenkins talked about their time as members of the Afro-American Society, a precursor to Amandla! Black Student Union, which organizes the Unity Conference.
“For students of color, we want them to leave with a sense of community and support from the students on campus and the students of color here,” said Raegine Clouden Mallett ’18, who organized the Unity Conference along with Mohamed, who found the photos. “For the Bates community as a whole, we want a general appreciation for black students and black students’ contributions to Bates.”
Many of those contributions came from Bruce and from Jenkins, now a Maine politician who served as mayor in both Lewiston and Auburn.
Anticipating the goals Mallett expressed, the Afro-American Society sought to, as its constitution stated, “bring Black awareness to the campus and the surrounding community.”
The group, Bruce said, held social events and brought in speakers and performers. It also pushed for more black faculty and African American studies courses as that field was emerging.
Reese, who has worked at Bates since 1977, told the group about his recent deep dives into the college’s early history — how the Fisk Jubilee Singers had performed on campus in 1873, how founder Oren B. Cheney must have known Frederick Douglass, and how political and social changes in the 20th century were reflected in the number of African American students at Bates and other New England colleges.
Hill and Bruce recounted how, as faculty members, they reached out to black students, supported their activism, and in turn let it inspire them. They worked with students, other faculty, and administrators to create spaces to teach and learn before formal academic programs in women’s studies and African American studies existed.
“You take a step; you plant a seed,” Bruce said later. “You’ll discover that maybe it will bear fruit.”
Bruce said the organizers of this year’s Unity Conference also planted seeds. During the discussion, Mohamed invited the students to talk in pairs about how Bates had shaped, positively or negatively, their black identities.
Returning to the group, they recounted feelings of loneliness and defensiveness. They talked about gaining a sense of the diversity of backgrounds and thought within the black community at Bates, and the strong connections that developed between older and younger students and among students within their major.
They received advice in return: Find a mentor, Hill said, someone “who will deliver the message that you’ve got what it takes.”
Reese urged them to learn history “from any source you can find,” and when they felt lonely, to “fall back on the beliefs that you have and the inspirations in front of you.”
Know who your forebears are and get in touch, because they’ll be happy to talk to you, Jenkins said.
And “take moments of joy seriously,” Mohamed added.
Bruce said the discussion reminded him of the African American tradition of “bearing witness,” which the writer James Baldwin used to great effect — speaking experience and truth can encourage a congregation, which can in turn lift up the speaker.
“It’s a source of encouragement and also a way to guide us in the moment,” he said. “When a student enables us to do that, that’s extraordinary — to say, this is who we say we are, to ask how we are making this a reality now, and what were the challenges before.”