Speeches & Commentary

Trilogy “Blacks in America 400+ years”

Good afternoon, and thank you for joining us here at Washington University in St. Louis as we commemorate 400 years since the first documented arrival of people of African descent to the United States.  I am especially grateful to Jack Kirkland for helping organize this event and for everyone else who has contributed their efforts. Many thanks also to the Honorable Wesley Bell, St. Louis County Prosecutor, who will serve as our keynote speaker.   

I am personally honored to have the opportunity to kick off this important event at Washington University, the first of three we will hold throughout the year.  At WashU, we consider this a significant moment in our history, and I believe we are one of the only universities in the country hosting a series such as this. I am also delighted to see so many members of the broader community with us today.  As Chancellor-elect, I’m deeply committed to strengthening our relationship with our surrounding neighbors and the greater region.

Today we consider the theme, “Black Struggle, Resiliency, and Hope for the Future,” which is an awful lot to consider in just a few short minutes.  But if I may, I want to take a moment to reflect just briefly on how one WashU alumnus exemplified all of these qualities — struggle, resilience, and hope — for the sake of the future.  A man who embodied Frederick Douglass’ words when he said, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” That alumnus is Walter Moran Farmer, the first African American to graduate from the Washington University Law School more than a century ago in 1889.

Farmer devoted his entire life and career to advancing racial equity.  He was a strong advocate for peaceful protest and served as a member of the St. Louis Committee of Five, a group that supported racial justice and denounced lynching.  After his graduation from WashU, Farmer went on to do incredible work. He was the first African American to serve in a judicial capacity in Missouri. He was also the first black lawyer to argue before the Supreme Court of Missouri and one of the first to go before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Just by looking at his resume, a careless observer might assume Farmer experienced little struggle on the road to success.  But, historic context reminds us that this is far from true. At that time in our university, our city, and our nation’s history, racial tension was immensely palpable.  Farmer’s graduation was just a few years before the U.S. Supreme Court decided Plessy v. Ferguson, which struck a resounding blow to desegregation efforts and served to legitimize racial bias.  Knowing that context, it’s not a big surprise then, that when Farmer participated in commencement, his white counterparts refused to walk beside him.   

That moment.  That of being the only one in a crowd.  The isolation and alienation he must have felt.  That…is struggle.

Nevertheless, and perhaps in spite of that struggle, Farmer went on to become an extraordinary lawyer and judge.  Throughout his career, he defended many African Americans — many of whom lived right here in St. Louis — allowing their voices and testimonies to be heard.  He fought tirelessly for his clients’ innocence and continued to seek justice in Missouri’s courts. That, friends and colleagues, is resilience.  

Some of you might be asking, “We have struggle. We have resilience. But where’s the hope?”

Indeed, African Americans have embodied struggle and resilience ever since the first person of African descent set foot on U.S. soil.  Here we are, 400 years later with similar struggles and similar resilience, and it can be difficult to see the hope and to fix our eyes on the future.

There’s one part of this story we must remember, though.  And for that, we return to Farmer’s graduation from WashU.  That day alone symbolizes hope. It symbolizes hope because it signifies progress, not just individually, but institutionally.  Throughout his career, Farmer broke through significant barriers — often alone — so that others in the future wouldn’t have to. His work, his struggle, and his resilience made way for African Americans to take on higher offices and leadership roles.  Judge Bell, for example, is here today, in part, because of Farmer and other African American leaders who came before him.

Beyond that, there is also hope in the fact that one person…one single person…stepped forward to walk beside Farmer so he wouldn’t have to do it alone.  That person was the dean of the Law School.

Therefore, while there is hope in this story for an entire group of people to find equity in education, career, compensation, criminal justice, and much more….hope for institutions like ours that can step up in big ways to make equitable strides in healthcare, STEM education, grading and college admissions, and racial tensions in the community, and more…hope also resides in the one man who was willing to step forward and walk side-by-side for the sake of justice.  It takes privileged leaders like the dean of the Law School that day, like me, and like some of you sitting in this room to step up when others seem less willing.

When we combine all of these things — individual struggle and progress, institutional mission and vision, and the responsibility of those in power, we can begin to see hope more clearly.

At WashU, we aim to do just that — to make hope more visible.  At WashU, we aim to hear the voice of struggle and resilience in order to achieve progress.  At WashU, we aim to enhance our institutional efforts to make Washington University a place where all people feel represented, safe, valued, and included members of our community.  And at WashU, we aim to act responsibly as we care for our students, faculty, staff, and patients here in St. Louis and throughout the world.   

As a university, we have made enormous strides since Farmer’s graduation.  We have committed to recruiting and retaining a highly diverse faculty and staff; we have improved access to a WashU education for students of color as well as varying socioeconomic backgrounds; we have hired key leaders who have helped give voice to the narratives of the past and who have facilitated dialogues across our differences; we have confronted racial disparities in medicine through research and patient care; and we have committed to being a leader in the local community around conversations surrounding race.  

In the last few centuries, we have come a long way, yet we still have a long way to go on the journey toward equity for our friends and colleagues of African descent.  Though I am confident that, through individual and collective struggle, resilience, and hope, we will begin to pave the way for a thriving future for all people.

Thank you again for being with us.  At WashU, we are deeply committed to commemorating this moment in our nation’s history. We are deeply committed to being a place where all people feel safe, represented, valued, and included.  And we are deeply committed to fostering hope as we live out our mission to improve the livelihoods of students, the people of the greater St. Louis community, the country, and the world.