The Extraordinary Commission: Student Activism and the Birth of Afro-American Studies at Harvard

On View by Appointment:
Location: Neil L. and Angelica Zander Rudenstine Gallery, Hutchins Center, 104 Mount Auburn Street, Floor 3R

Curatorial Statement

The courageous efforts to establish an Afro-American Studies department at Harvard were born out of the crucible of student organizing that took place across college campuses during the sweeping social changes of the mid-to-late 1960s. While African American students at San Francisco State College successfully established a model for a Black Studies program in 1967, the struggle for civil rights, the presence of ROTC on college campuses, and the outrage over the cost and carnage of the Vietnam War had already been a major feature of student organizing for many years. According to historian Ibram H. Rogers, “between 1965-1972, African American students at upwards of a thousand American colleges and universities organized to demand the creation of Black Studies departments.”

In the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who had already been invited to be Harvard’s first undergraduate Class Day speaker; the role was filled in his stead by Coretta Scott King), the Harvard-Radcliffe Association of African and Afro-American Students (AFRO) arranged their own memorial to King on April 9, 1968. By April 14, a group of African American students founded the Ad-Hoc Committee of Black Students. A little over a year later in the spring of 1969, AFRO successfully lobbied the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to appoint an “extraordinary commission” that would be committed to creating a department of Black Studies solely dedicated to the study of African American culture, life and history. While this online exhibition isn’t definitive, it’s clear that the sustained protests of student activists directly led to the development of what we now call the Department of African and African American Studies. As such, their direct actions were integral to changing the social relations, scholarly advancements and culture for the better.

I would also like to thank Tommie Shelby, Chair of the Department of African and African American Studies and Caldwell Titcomb Professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research and Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor; and Abby Wolf, Executive Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research for their support of this project. I would also like to thank my colleagues Karen C.C. Dalton and Sheldon Cheek whose research this exhibition builds upon as well Harvard University Archives, Lee S. Smith ’69, and WGBH.

-Dell Marie Hamilton, April 1, 2020


See also: AAAS 50th Anniversary Symposium

The Rudenstine Gallery and Cooper Gallery and both virtual for now. See our closure announcement here.