Deborah Gray White eagerly jumped onto the 42nd Street bus, carrying her trunk. His destination, out of sight: Harpur College.
In 1967, the university presented an opportunity to escape the public housing project in New York where she grew up and seek true independence. But it was also an opportunity to shape the future in other ways.
Now a distinguished professor of history at Rutgers University, White ’71 became the first president of the Afro-Latin Alliance, the precursor of the current Black Student Alliance and one of the formative organizations that led to the creation of Harpur College’s Department of African Studies.
On October 15, she discussed her Harpur experience, activism, and scientific interest in African American and women’s history at a Zoom conference hosted by Africana Studies. White returned to campus to debut in 2014, when she received an honorary doctorate in human letters.
“I really had a deep feeling that things were really going to be different for me from my parents. They were both southerners and they had been part of the Great Migration,” she said. “I was able to. to experience the civil rights movement, to choose a career, to go to college; that was not something my parents could have done.
Harpur in the 1960s
The late 1960s were a tumultuous period in American history, marked by frequent protests against racism and the Vietnam War. The Binghamton campus was no exception.
“You couldn’t miss the fact that something was happening in the country because there were so many protests on campus and protests that the school was going to close,” White recalls.
But at only 18 and away from home for the first time, she had other priorities, common to most students: enjoying her newfound freedom and securing her future. With the exception of that first summer, she stayed in Binghamton during her breaks and immersed herself in what she considered “Camp Harpur”.
As a woman of color, she knew she was watched when she went to the supermarket and other local stores. The campus bus system was not robust at the time, so she saved up and bought a used car, which came in handy when she left the campus for the nearby town of Johnson.
“You could go days without seeing a black person, especially being as cold as he was,” she said.
With so few people of color on campus, black and Latin students have teamed up for the Afro-Latin Alliance. There were tensions early on, but many of them centered around dating pressures at a time when an unexpected pregnancy could irrevocably ruin a young woman’s future. The Black Power movement also tended to promote an environment that emphasized traditional gender roles, with men as leaders, she recalled.
This dynamic raised eyebrows when White became the organization’s first president.
“There were a lot of people, men and women, who thought we really needed male representation. How are we going to get a woman to lead this organization? ” she said.
The club has organized, demonstrated and lobbied the University to undertake initiatives that promote both student and academic diversity. More students of color joined and the Afro-Latin Alliance split into separate organizations for black and Latin students; the first became the Black Student Union, which exists today.
The student advocacy work had lasting implications: it led to the creation of courses incorporating African-American perspectives and, ultimately, the creation of what is today the Department of African Studies, among the first in the country in 1969.
Activism in academia
The wave of protest grew further, fueled by tensions following Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election and incidents such as the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. White observes these movements with both the professional interest of a historian and the deep sadness that so much remains to be done in the struggle for fairness.
“Intellectual activist”, she has a broad vision of activism that is not limited to street demonstrations. Her own activism took shape in academia, where she helped shape the field of African American women’s history.
This dedication came at a cost, especially at the beginning; she risked her college career with her first book, am I not a woman? Female slaves in the south of the plantation, published in 1985. His colleagues disdained his research topic at the time; she feared she would not get a tenure and started making plans for a life outside of academia. She landed a publishing deal just in time, she said.
White has also researched activism and in 2017 published a book on mass marches in the 1990s titled Lost in the United States: The American Identity of the Promise Keepers at the Million Moms March. She did not attend these marches herself, but instead conducted in-depth interviews and archival research, she said.
“I don’t think everyone needs to be on the streets. It’s dignified and it’s something people really need to do, but there are others of us who find the pen or the classroom, ”she reflected. “Each of us must determine how we will participate in the movement. I never gave up on this movement.