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Retracing Lost Paths: The Tufts African American Freedom Trail

Campus | December 4, 2017

I do not know Gerald Gill, but I do know his legacy. Whether it be the fellowship housed under the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy (CSRD) or the back room of the Africana Center which he serves as namesake, his legacy lingers all over campus—hidden in plain sight. Each year I have found myself discovering parts of this legacy, piece by piece. And within a few months of starting at Tufts, I uncovered one of the largest: The Tufts African American Freedom Trail.

The trail was one of Gill’s brainchildren that was never quite nurtured to maturity. Inspired by his own class expeditions into the city, the Tufts African American Freedom Trail was an attempt to weave a similar thread of connection on campus through a purposeful marking of historical Black sites. This all changed in 2015 when the CSRD, under the tutelage of Professor Kendra Field in collaboration with the Africana Center and a few professors at Tufts, decided to uncover and present the trail in the light of which Gill once dreamt. This initial project featured a walking tour with about seven key sites. Anjalique Knight, a student introduced to the trail as a first-year, said, “It was an important project to highlight that Black people have always existed at Tufts and not only that, but we do work that positively impacts this community.” As it stands now, the tour has expanded to include eleven official on-campus sites with the goal of expansion ever on the horizon.

First, on what we now know as College Avenue lies the Stearns Estate. George Luther Stearns, a Medford resident, grew up surrounded by a small but nonetheless significant community of Black neighbors. Retellings of Stearns’ life will tell you of his entrance into the workforce at a young age and his involvement with many anti-slavery causes which ranged from being an avid supporter of John Brown to a recruiter of African American soldiers for the Union army. Although he holds many accomplishments under his belt, he and his namesake estate solidified their spot on this trail because of Stearns’ commitment to helping fugitive slaves. Aided by a network of African Americans expanding from Medford all the way to Beacon Hill, Stearns was able to assist many enslaved persons on their journey to freedom. The estate is the oldest of the on-campus sites, garnering much of its historical significance in the mid-19th century.

Next in line would be Carpenter House, known to many Tufts students as a simple residence hall. Students of African descent, especially those who inhabited campus from the years of 1969 to 1977, know that Carpenter House is much more than that. Invigorated by the national Black Studies movement, the growing Black population of Tufts began to demand more from its institution. Through a series of meetings with administration starting in 1969, students were able to win a space in which they were able to “provide facilities to augment research opportunities in Afro-American history and culture.” The Afro-American Cultural Center of Carpenter House served not only as a residence hall for Black students, but also as a hub for sociocultural events and resting place for available resources and support networks.

A year after co-sponsoring the National Black Solidarity Conference in 1976, the Center experienced two major changes: first a change in name and then a change in location. Although the Afro-American Cultural Center of Carpenter House became the African American Center of Capen House, the commitment to creating an environment of education, celebration, and comfort for Black students did not cease. As proof of this commitment, the name was changed again in 2001 to the Africana Center—proof of the diversity of the ever-growing Black community at Tufts. Iconic cornerstones of the Center, such as the first-year retreat and the peer leader program, allow the traditions of the original Center to thrive in modernity.

Right outside of the Africana Center sits a bench, and much like the other objects of the trail, it contains much more than what the naked eye may reveal. In bronze and gold, a dedication to Lena Bruce, the only Black woman in the Tufts engineering class of 1992, rests on the face of the cool stone bench. While at Tufts, Bruce kept herself busy by volunteering at homeless shelters, working on demanding electrical engineering assignments, and tutoring kids at local high schools. For all intents and purposes, Bruce had already made the first steps in securing her goal of “making it out” by graduating from Tufts with honors and securing a job. Bruce was only able to enjoy these hard-earned spoils for a few months before her life was taken in the summer of 1992.

A sister bench of similar style sits across from the Olin Center. The plaque on the front of this bench is dedicated to Anita Griffey, another outstanding member of the Tufts community. With hopes of graduating in 1989 with a degree in Political Science, Griffey passed in a fatal car crash about a month before her graduation in May. Both Bruce and Griffey were members of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, a historically Black Greek letter organization founded in 1913. These benches exude a similar reverence for Black students Gill wanted to create with the planting of the Memorial Tree in 2001. Unlike the benches, the Memorial Tree was not in memory to anyone specific, but rather a gift to Black students who have been integral members of the Tufts community as early as the late 19th century. Anéya Sousa, who participated in a special trail tour over the summer, remembers being especially interested in the Tree. “People sit over here all the time,” she remarked “and inhabit this campus without thinking about where the labor really came from to make it possible.” A plaque which names a few of the remarkable faces that have graced the University’s campus exists nearby in Goddard chapel.

It is no surprise that Edward Dugger of the historic Dugger family of West Medford is one of the names on said plaque. Dugger’s time at Tufts seems unreal, almost as if it were taken from the script of some Hollywood movie. A member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity (the first international fraternal organization, founded at Howard University), class secretary, Vice President of the Athletic Association, and varsity athlete with 24 track and field records under his belt, Dugger was busy, to say the least. By his graduating year in 1941, he had done more than enough to set himself apart. Despite this fact, Tufts had allowed his plaque of dedication to grow hidden under sprouting ivy. On April 22, 2016, the plaque was revealed in a re-dedication ceremony, and his place in the physical landscape of Tufts was reborn. Toluwa Akinyemi, a sophomore at the time, hoped her presence at the ceremony would “support the continuation of his legacy.” A few well-paced steps away is the Planar Mountain Sculpture. When it moved from its original home near Carmichael Hall to the Remis Sculpture court, it was dedicated to T.J. Anderson, an African American Austin Fletcher Professor of Music Emeritus.

The remaining campus sites are rounded out by two buildings on Tufts’ lower campus, colloquially known as downhill. The significance of our first building, Lewis Hall, dates back to 1969, the year of its construction. That year, the building, then known as Jackson Hall dormitory, had a problem: all of the on-site construction workers were White. Casual questioning and curiosity led to the introduction of two or three workers of color being placed on the site. However, neither the University nor the work unions responsible for hiring seemed to be interested in increasing these numbers anytime soon. In response, Black students at Tufts came together in a series of protests, which culminated in a demonstration on the construction site. In response to students’ dissatisfaction, the Tufts administration called both Medford and Somerville police officers to the site. Tensions between students, the University, and the contracted company did not subside until 1970, when student pressure led to a lawsuit being filed against the construction company. Eventually, an agreement was reached, and Black workers were introduced to the Jackson site as well as the future construction sites.

Rewind to 1956, when Bernard Harleston enters Tufts University as a member of the Psychology Department. Dr. Harleston, the first African American hired on a tenure track at Tufts, dedicated 25 years of service as a professor at the University. Unlike a plethora of remarkable Black people who have inhabited the campus in a variety of roles, Harleston was thoroughly recognized for his work: he received an honorary degree in 1998, a position on the Board of Trustees in 2002, and finally, in 2016, a ceremony which celebrated the renaming of South Hall to Harleston Hall in his honor.

Gerald Gill once said the lessons of history are always important to understanding the present. It is an offshoot of one of the most hackneyed phrases of the English language that stands the test of time and just like unacknowledged history, it bears repeating. It is important that we continue to breathe life into these names, these photos, these physical markers of space, and these histories in the hopes that, as we resurrect them, we honor them in the way we will one day desire to be hono