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Not my great grandfather’s Bowdoin: the beauty of Af/Am/50

November 15, 2019

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Maia Coleman

I recently greeted my granddaughter Karis, a student at Bowdoin (Class of 2023), in the lobby of Pickard Theater at Bowdoin. A plaque on the wall at Pickard lists the names of Bowdoin men who fought in the Civil War, including my great-grandfather (her triple-great grandfather) George Beamon Kenniston (Class of 1862). Old George fought valiantly for the Union and spent some time in a Confederate prison camp.

Karis and I were there to see Geoffrey Canada ’74, H’07 deliver the Keynote Address for Af/Am/50, a weekend celebrating 50 years of African Studies, the African American Society and the John Brown Russwurm African American Center.

Canada is the visionary founder and president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an organization dedicated to increasing high school and graduation rates among students in Harlem. Pacing back and forth, Canada gave a blockbuster talk, laced with insights and passion, humor and hope. He focused on the huge support he had received from Bowdoin, especially from his fellow African American students. The loud standing ovation ran on for several minutes.

During Canada’s talk, I sat between Karis and Robert “Bobby” Ives ’69, a winner of the Common Good Award for his extraordinary work with the Carpenter’s Boat Shop in Pemaquid, Maine. Bobby and I were working in admissions when Canada applied to Bowdoin; at one point, he whispered to me, “we were there then!”

Bobby later reminded me of an event which had shaped his life’s mission. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. One of Bobby’s best Bowdoin friends was Virgil Logan, an African American student. The two of them agreed that they had to attend King’s funeral in Memphis.

“We decided to hitchhike,” recalls Bobby, “because we had no money.”

Word of their hitchhiking plan got to Athern Daggett, Bowdoin’s acting president. Daggett asked Bobby and Virgil if they’d be willing to accept funds to fly to Memphis and to represent Bowdoin at the service. They agreed. They returned from the memorial service several days later, determined to spend their lives working for human rights and justice.

After Canada’s rousing talk, we met our friend Kama Jones El ’17; when she was at Bowdoin, often referred to me and Tina as her “white grandparents.” Kama, who teaches at a public school in Newark, N.J., said that she was totally inspired by the weekend and hoped to do more to follow the lead of people like Geoffrey Canada.

An earlier panel (“A Seat at the Table”) had been equally inspiring. Five alumnae spoke to the special challenges faced by African American women at Bowdoin and in their careers. Our friend Awa Diaw ’11 stressed the importance of having both “mentors” and “sponsors.” Mentors, she explained, are people you can turn to for advice and support. Sponsors are people in positions of power who you’ll need to get on your side so they will advocate for you.

Saddie Smith ’75, a member of Bowdoin’s first class of women, related an experience she had in her first class.

“I had taken four years of Latin in high school, but I was concerned about being able to do the work at Bowdoin so I signed up for Introductory Latin. After the class, the professor (Nate Dane) said he wanted to talk to me. I was terrified. He asked if I’d taken Latin before, and I confessed that I’d taken four years of Latin. He said that I didn’t belong in this class and that I would be bumped up to Latin 5. That one experience convinced me that I belonged at Bowdoin, and I’ve remembered it ever since.”

Major Marnita Thompson Eaddie ’90 told a story that elicited whoops and jeers from the audience. She was tutoring a white male student in math, and at one point he asked her if she had gotten into Bowdoin only because she was an African American.

In the panel entitled, “Black Arts: A Canvas for Social Activism,” George Elizey ’13, an actor, writer and producer, stressed the need to assemble a team of people who share your values. Coretta King ’12 declared, “You were not put on this earth not to shine your light. “ George and Coretta had each come to Bowdoin planning to prepare for traditional careers, but then they gained the confidence to pursue their artistic dreams.

I eagerly anticipated the “Conversation with President Clayton Rose and Kenneth Chenault ’73, H’96,” because I had read Chenault’s outstanding application when he applied to Bowdoin. Chenault became the first African American CEO of a Fortune 500 Company when he took the reins at American Express. He underscored the traits of a good leader, such as integrity, values, compassion and character.

Chenault spoke about doing research for his senior honors thesis, which was entitled, “The Black Man at Bowdoin.” He discovered that half of the 18 black students who had matriculated at Bowdoin between 1910 and 1955 had graduated Phi Beta Kappa, noting that they weren’t even allowed to live on campus.

“They were real pioneers,” he said.

Chenault’s classmate Michael Owens ’73 sat right behind me during the Rose-Chenault conversation. As an associate director of admissions, I had first met Michael at Haverhill High School, from which he graduated at the top of his class. I knew he and Bowdoin would make a fine match. He excelled at Bowdoin, earned a degree from Yale Medical School and went on to become a leading physician executive for various health care organizations. Geoffrey Canada later cited Owens as one of his mentors during his time at Bowdoin.

At the beginning of the weekend, I had run into DeRay Mckesson ’07, who I had come to know during his time at Bowdoin. I congratulated Mckesson, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, for all he was doing. “Thanks,” he said, “but we have a lot more work to do.” Indeed.

I’m proud of the impact my alma mater has had on so many outstanding African Americans over the last 50 years. They, in turn, have made Bowdoin a much better college and the world a much better place. I have a hunch my great-grandfather, old George Beamon Kenniston, would share my pride.

David Treadwell is a Brunswick resident and a member of the Class of 1964.

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