I write this column on the last day of Black History Month, a time set aside every year to remember, honor and celebrate the achievements of African Americans over the five centuries of European settlement in the United States. We recall the exploits of many notable men and women, from De Sable to Douglass to DuBois, and call up memories of less-recognized contributors to scientific discovery, educational advancement, cultural enrichment, or political freedom. One inspiring subset of those we commemorate this month are the “firsts”—those pioneers that broke through barriers of racial discrimination, poverty, foreclosed opportunity to create pathways for succeeding generations to follow.
In St. Mary’s City, we can point with pride to the example of Matthias DeSousa, who was the first landowner of African descent in Maryland; this fact is even more remarkable when we realize that at the time, most other Africans didn’t have property rights over their own persons. There is a more recent pathfinder, however, that we should celebrate: Elizabeth Walker, St. Mary’s Junior College Class of 1964, the first African American to obtain a degree here. I realize that for many of us, it is mildly shocking that, over a hundred years since the founding of the College and during the height of the Civil Rights movement, we produced our first Black graduate, but it was a landmark achievement for her and us nonetheless. The conditions Ms. Walker faced as a student in the St. Mary’s County of the early sixties were far different than they are today. She faced ostracism and outright hostility from her fellow students and even faculty. She had to make her way through obstacles that we can, thankfully, only imagine. Make it through she did, however, and has in her work and life continued to forge paths for other students to follow.
Elizabeth Walker’s story is not one to be obscured by the progress we’ve made over the last fifty years. There are still opportunities for pathfinding pioneers, and many of them are on our campus today. I refer to the DeSousa Brent Scholars, participants in a program that focuses on giving opportunities to talented and ambitious students from groups not traditionally well-represented on this or other selective institutions: first generation college students, students eligible to receive Pell Grants, students of color, students with disabilities and students from rural or urban communities. The program offers more than opportunity, however; scholars are expected to contribute to the life of the College in and out of the classroom, as leaders, as teachers, and as exemplars of the St. Mary’s Way. I am pleased and proud to say that the DeSousa Brent Scholars have abundantly fulfilled their obligations and that the College continues to be enriched by their presence.
Thinking about the DeSousa Brent Scholars Program naturally brings me to the person that has been its heart and organizing intelligence for the past few years–Dr. Sybol Cook Anderson. She has been an inspiring member of our faculty, and, in her own life story, has also been a pathfinder. Her own contributions to the intellectual and cultural life of the College are incalculable; I have little doubt that she will continue to open the way for countless others in her new position.
Over the years, the concept of a Black History Month has become more controversial. Why, some ask, devote a particular month to the achievements of a selected group of people? My answer is simple: Black History Month is not just for African Americans. The stories we recall are part of the grand American narrative: how vision, talent, concerted effort (and not a little luck) can triumph over any obstacles. The examples we hold up provide lessons for us all to learn and follow well after this very short month is over.