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The fight against the erasure of John B. Russwurm

February 9, 2024

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

Despite his contributions to addressing the struggles of being Black in America, Bowdoin College’s first Black student, John Brown Russwurm (Class of 1826), has been erased, hidden and overlooked by the College. During his lifetime (1799-1851), Russwurm taught Black history in urban Black schools; became the third Black person in the nation to graduate from an American college; created the first Black newspaper, the Freedom’s Journal; was an editor at the Liberia Herald, the then-colony of Liberia’s first newspaper; and became governor of the colony of Maryland in Liberia. The life of this remarkable Bowdoin alum marked the beginning of the effort to prove Black people are capable and worthy of being educated and literate.

Bowdoin’s singular tribute to this notable Black figure is a house dedicated as the “John Brown Russwurm African American Center.” This dedication is a form of erasure, as the term “African American” is not synonymous with the term “Black,” but a specific identity that resulted from the Black diaspora. John Brown Russwurm was not “African American”: he was Jamaican. This false identity that is misused in his dedication and on the Bowdoin Library website renders his identity as a Caribbean invisible. Additionally, the assumption that dedicating a building after Russwurm’s name and identity is enough to symbolize Bowdoin’s commitment to diversity is an illusion that helps the College appear as open-minded. To begin to truly honor this remarkable figure, Bowdoin must first acknowledge the fact that John Brown Russwurm isn’t African American as the Center and the Bowdoin Library website suggest, but a Black immigrant.

I urge Bowdoin, which prides itself on its diversity and open-minded atmosphere, to bring visibility to this Black figure and other Black students on campus by renaming the Center the “John Brown Russwurm Pan-African Center.” This name encompasses all identities of the Black diaspora, including not only Russwurm’s identity but also the identities of all Black students who find security in the building as a safe Black space on campus. I also created a petition that asks the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to rename the Center, for those who would like to make this name change happen. Renaming the Russwurm House is just the beginning of granting John B. Russwurm the recognition and honor he deserves on this campus.

Nyla Danzy is a member of the Class of 2027.


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