Another Light on the Hill Black Students at Tufts


A Tufts student pioneers the selfie, 2000
Harrison Clark A22 leads S-Factor in an electrifying set at the freshman orientation O-Show, 2021

In 1997, the Tufts administration convened a Task Force on Race to examine the impact of race on the undergraduate community at Tufts. The Task Force released findings in the late 1990s, with an oversight panel continuing through 2004. Although the administration created the Task Force, it arose from student concerns and included the input of Black students, alumni, and faculty and staff, including Gerald Gill.

In 1997, Black students made up only 4.2% of the freshman class. These numbers would continue to fluctuate through the late 1990s and early 2000s but generally trended upwards. In 1996, for example, 62 incoming freshmen were Black, down from a historic high of 89 in 1989 but double the number of Black incoming freshmen in 1991. Despite this, Tufts ranked 17th out of 21 among academically comparable schools in terms of Black enrollment. Black members of the class of 1996 reported feeling less supported by faculty, less interested in engage with Tufts as alumni, more likely to need financial aid and student loans, and reported experiencing exclusion on campus at higher rates than other student groups. The Task Force proposed numerous policy changes, including a focus on hiring and retaining Black tenure-track faculty, increased organized outreach to Black applicants outside of the New England area, and a shift to need-blind financial aid packages that relied less heavily on student loans.

By 2000, halfway through the Task Force’s existence, numbers for Black students were trending up, with 5.5% of incoming freshmen identifying as Black and 5.6% of the overall student body identifying as Black; on average, 91% of them would graduate from Tufts in four years. The University had also hired fourteen new Black tenure-track professors, nearly a quarter of all new tenure-track hires, and offered seventeen courses focused on Black studies, history, literature, and experience across numerous departments in the School of Arts and Sciences. The TCU president that year, Larry Harris A00, was Black. It was a start, but certainly not the end.

This upward trend would continue through the mid 2000s, hitting a high of 358 Black undergrads in the 2002-2003 school year. The Pan African Alliance worked closely with the administration and underclassmen to boost Black enrollment, including the start of a Big Brother/Big Sister program for incoming freshmen. The African Student Organization founded an annual step competition, Break the Stage, in 2002, with its events drawing hundreds of audience members from across New England. Black students formed other groups, such as Envy and BlackOut, a women’s and men’s step team in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Beginning in spring 2005, Black students put on the Emerging Black Leaders Symposium, hosting figures such as Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and C.T. Vivian, in addition to other prominent Black lawyers, religious figures, artists, and academics.

Members of the National Society of Black Engineers show off a handmade banner, 2015

Black students continued to expressed concerns about visibility and inclusion throughout the first decade of the 21st century. In 2004, the University hired an outside actor to fill a role in “Parade,” as only one Black Tufts students auditioned and the musical had multiple roles that needed to be played by Black actors. While there was a growing number of Black Tufts students and Black creative groups like the Black Theater Company, Black students reported only being reached out to when Black theater roles needed to be filled. Likewise, student groups such as the PAA and the Emerging Black Leaders Symposium reported that the events they organized that were explicitly open to the whole Tufts community only attracted Black students. Black students also told The Daily and other student publications about continued negative encounters with Tufts University Police and a lack of meaningful discussion on race relations from President Lawrence Bacow.

Black students continued to express concerns about visibility and inclusion throughout the first decade of the 21st century. In the aftermath of a racist parody of the carol “O Come All Ye Faithful” in a 2006 issue of Primary Source, many Black students felt that Tufts was doing little more than paying lip service to ideas of inclusion and anti-racism. Students reported that they were often expected to perform campus education functions and were expected to speak on behalf of the Black population without institutional support.

Students pose outside of PAA's Brown Sugar Prom, 2014
A trio of friends gather on the dance floor of the Brown Sugar Prom, 2014

Black students also had meaningful campus victories. By 2007, the number of Black students who applied to and were admitted to Tufts increased by more than 25 percent. In 2010, Black students and their allies began sustained advocacy for an Africana Studies major. Chartise Clark, A11, a TCU senator and Pan-African Alliance’s vice president, introduced a senate resolution calling for the new major and authored an open letter to the administration. In the fall of 2011, Tabias Wilson, A13, PAA’s president, led efforts culminating in President Monaco, Dean of Arts and Sciences Joanne Berger Sweeney, and acting Provost Peggy Newell signing a public agreement with students leading to the creation of an Africana Studies major and is now part of the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora.

A variety of Black-led student groups won national acclaim during the 2010s. The Tufts National Society of Black Engineers chapter spearheaded events with the School of Engineering, such as Engineering Week and panels to encourage underrepresented populations to study STEM. In 2012, the chapter won $1500 from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for a video the chapter made to encourage Black middle schoolers to learn more about engineering. S-Factor, an a cappella group that highlights music of the African diaspora, went on their first national tour to New York City in April 2013, performing at historic Black churches in the Bronx and doing outreach to Black and Latino youth. In 2020, BlackOut won National Collegiate Performing Arts Association Step Championship, beating out other college step teams from across the country such as Yale and Emory.

The number of Black students began declining through the mid 2000s, falling to just 181 Black undergrads in 2013-2014. In response to student groups, President Monaco convened a President’s Council on Diversity in 2013. The Council found that, out of 11 peer institutions, Tufts had the lowest rates of Black enrollment and had plateaued in its enrollment of other minority groups as well. While PAA student leaders applauded the administration’s investigations, they noted a lack of analysis of intersectional identities and raised continued concerns about the low numbers of Black tenured faculty and high-level administrators.

In the aftermath of the Ferguson uprising and the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, Tufts students took an active role in mobilizing rallies and marches in the Boston area. Amber Rose Johnson A15, Jonathan Jacob Moore A15, and Anissa Waterhouse A17 coordinated Indict Tufts, a series of open forums and demonstrations about anti-Black racism on campus and in America, and organized and led a solidarity march of over 600 students and local residents from Tufts campus to Harvard Square in December 2014. Graduate students in the Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning program organized a Black Lives Matter graduate student group in 2015, and undergrads joined with peers at BU and MIT to march in support of Black students at Mizzou. Most notably, in March 2015, Black students organized #thethreepercent, a student protest group that pressured the administration to better recruit and support Black students and faculty. They drew their name from the fact that only three percent of tenured faculty at Tufts were Black, and that Black students had fallen from seven percent of the student body to four percent in less than a decade.

By 2020, Black students made up 7.2% of the student body, almost double from 2014 but still short of #thethreepercent’s 13% goal. Following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, students created the Tufts for a Racially Equitable Endowment (TREE) project, which advocated for a Tufts to completely divest from the prison-industrial complex and advocated for a TCU Senate referendum that passed with 88% of students voting in favor of divestment. Chi-Chi Ikpeazu A22, and Xavier Brooks A22, led Athletes of Color, an affinity group for minority student-athletes to discuss their experiences with racism in college sports. In 2021, Amma Agyei E22, became the first Black woman elected as TCU Senate President. Harrison Clark A22 conceived and created Almanac, the first-ever student-written work to be a Tufts Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies mainstage production. Clark’s work examines the nature of Black art and was inspired in part by research within the Gerald Gill Papers and by the work of Jester Hairston A29 and T.J. Anderson.

In the 125 years since Charles Sumner Wilson enrolled for one year at Tufts and the 20 years since Professor Gerald R. Gill published “Another Light the Hill” in Tufts Magazine, Black students continue to lift their voices on campus, to organize and lead, and to challenge Tufts to move forward.

– Researched and written by Cat Rosch AG22, 2021