In 1826, John Brown Russwurm became the first African American to graduate from Bowdoin College. Nearly 200 years later, the House named in his memory is a thriving center for academic, social and cultural events on campus.
The son of an English merchant and an unknown black slave, Russwurm was born in 1799 in Jamaica. He and his father moved to Portland, Maine in 1812, where he attended Hebron Academy. In 1824, with the support of his stepmother and her second husband, Russwurm enrolled at Bowdoin.
After graduation, he led an illustrious career as an abolitionist, serving as editor of “Freedom’s Journal” (the first newspaper owned and operated by African Americans) in New York for several years before emigrating to Liberia in 1829, following his controversial support of African American colonization of Africa. He served as editor of “The Liberia Herald” for several years and became governor of the Maryland section of the colony in 1836, holding this post until his death in 1851.
“The Russwurm House is really interesting because it has the history connected with the Africana Studies program and gets reconnected to student groups too,” said Brittany-Renee Vernon ’14, an Africana Studies major.
Originally built in 1827 (with a long history of ownership and name changes), the Mitchell-Little House on College Street was rededicated as the John Brown Russwurm African-American Center in 1970, a year after the creation of the Africana Studies program. Since that time, the program has grown considerably and moved its offices from the Russwurm House to Adams Hall.
Although the Russwurm House is no longer home base for the Africana Studies program, it still has an academic function, housing an extensive library that is heavily utilized by faculty.
“It’s like a resource center for us,” said professor Tess Chakkalakal, who is serving her third year as director of the Africana Studies program. “We have a remarkable collection of books related to African-American and African Studies.”
“[The House] serves mostly a social function now, though we also host many of our speakers, performance artists, or even academics to give lectures, talks and panel discussions there,” said Chakkalakal.
Vernon is a member of the African-American Society and currently lives in the Russwurm House with three other students who are members of either the African-American Society, African Alliance or the Latin American Student Organization (LASO). According to Vernon, these three student groups elect members to live in the house each year.
“You really get to know the people you’re living with, since it’s only four people,” she said.
“A big of part of [Russwurm] is catering to the first years and giving them a space where they feel comfortable,” said President of the African-American Society Dominique Wein ’15, stressing the importance of the house as a social center.
“Last year we had a weekly meeting for African-American Society that was kind of like a treasure hunt based on Black History Month,” she said. “It was pretty fun. And even the little meetings where you get to see everyone and just talk—that’s probably my favorite part [of the Society].”
Despite its many purposes, both Vernon and Wein said they believe that the house’s potential has not yet been fully realized.
“I would definitely like to see the house used even more as a resource for the whole campus,” said Wein. “There may be a stigma on campus where people think that Russwurm House is only for black people and I want to see it used in a wider scope.”
Vernon is currently spearheading February’s Black History Month Film Festival and hopes that the films will attract a diverse crowd. Although the film screenings are in Cleveland Hall, the festival represents one of many types of events put on by the organizations based in the House. The documentary “Free Angela” was screened last night, and the critically-acclaimed drama “Fruitvale Station” will play on February 27.
“I wanted to do something that would appeal to the whole campus,” said Vernon, “but I kind of wanted to do my own thing too, so we didn’t do movies that people had already seen…I chose [“Free Angela”] because I wanted the film festival to have an educational aspect, and it was also about a woman, so I wanted to do that too.”
“Fruitvale Station—it was a movie that got a lot of hype. It had won a ton of awards and it hadn’t had any viewings in Brunswick movie theaters at all, so I definitely wanted to bring that to campus,” she added.
Vernon and Wein would also like to see more collaboration between the groups that utilize the House.
“The house brings the people together to live in the House but there’s not as much overlap as you would think,” said Wein.
“The Africana Studies department co-sponsored the film festival, which is great,” Vernon said, “but I really haven’t seen many other events that have brought everyone together. I think that would be wonderful.”