A Dedication: The 50th Anniversary Commemorative Stone

♪ Bulldog, bow wow wow,
our team will never fail ♪ ♪ When the sons of Eli
break through the line ♪ ♪ That is the sign we hail ♪ ♪ Bulldog, bulldog,
bow wow wow, Eli Yale ♪ – Good afternoon, we are here today to pay tribute to the first women of Yale College, 575 trailblazers, who came through Phelps Gate in 1969, and changed this university forever. (crowd applauds) This is where we find a fitting place to honor them, to honor you. We’ve chosen this spot because it is where many Yale students historically have begun their Yale careers as they move into Old Campus, and it is where they march out onto the world amidst music
and banners and cheering crowds following commencement. And this is not far from
where the first building of the collegiate school in New Haven, now called Yale, was
raised over 300 years ago. In this place, rich with Yale history, we remember that every barrier broken is both an end and a beginning. The first women of Yale College inaugurated a new era. Their legacy is all around us in classrooms and in residential colleges, in the lives of distinguished
alumni and in the nation and world they helped shape. Now, it is represented on our campus. Today, with the dedication of this 50th anniversary commemorative stone, we honor their courage and commitment. We remember their spirit and resilience, your spirit and resilience. We thank them. We thank you for being the first. As we join together with
students, faculty, alumni and staff here and around the globe, we look with optimism
to future generations who will, like the
extraordinary first women of Yale College, carry
forward Yale’s mission of light and truth into the world. And now it is a great
privilege to introduce my friend, Elizabeth
Alexander, a 1984 graduate of Yale College, a prize
winning poet, essayist, educator and scholar. Ms. Alexander is the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She is a former longtime
faculty member at Yale where she was the
inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry and the chair of the African-American
Studies Department. She received an Honorary Degree of Letters from Yale in 2008. Please join me in welcoming
Elizabeth Alexander. It is a privilege, once again, to welcome you back home. (crowd applauds) Thank you for doing this. – Thank you, Peter. It is such an honor to be here, and I know we want to see what’s here, but I am very honored to have been asked to deliver some real remarks. So, it’ll take a minute, but it’s a beautiful day. Meditations on co-education. I’ve been thinking about the difference between evolution and revolution. Evolution moves forward in unfolding time, and overtime, the organism changes. There’s all the time in
the world to catch up. That’s evolution. Revolution is a sharp turn, an about face, occasioning acceleration. Some things need to be done decisively and happen fast. Sometimes, places and
people and ideas need to be jolted forward
into the present tense so the organism can continue
to grow and flourish. Both have their time, place and utility. Admitting undergraduate women
to Yale was the revolution that brought this institution forward. The rest has been evolutions,
but first the university needed to take a sharp
turn into the future. The first classes of women to attend Yale, those women that we honor
with this celebration, were tough-stalked and
bold to use the words of the poet Robert Hayden. Seeds had been planted earlier with women who were pioneers in the graduates schools like Pauli Murray and Grace Hopper. I have always felt particularly inspired by Otelia Cromwell. The first black women to earn any degree from Yale,
and the first black women to earn a PhD in English anywhere in 1926. Her example and history have always felt proximate to me because since careers as professors in schools like Yale were not open to black women in 1926, she went onto to teach
at Dunbar High School, the renowned black academic high school in Washington, D.C.
where one of her students was my beloved grandmother, Winona Logan. I grew up being trained and corrected in my language and
grammar and reading habits by my grandmother who attributed every rule to Otelia Cromwell. (laughs) She has been memorialized by Smith College where she was the first
black female undergraduate, and indeed, Smith College has an entire Otelia Cromwell day. Though, I dare say, Ms.
Cromwell would disdain the fact that on that
day, there are no classes. (audience laughs) And here, at last, there
are not one but two portraits of her, just
making sure it sticks. There isn’t a lot on
her in the alumni files, but we do have her
dissertation and combing the alumni files for any further semblance of the women is a letter that she writes on October 5, 1922 to the
Yale Athletic Association requesting two tickets
for the Harvard-Yale game. “If I may have the privilege
of buying tickets,” she wrote, “will you send me an application blank?” It is noted for alumni
records, that she became a member of board of directors
who would have charge of what was called “An
Encyclopedia of the Negro.” A project undergone by W.E.B. Du Bois. From 1939 forward, her name is
listed in a special card file that I have seen with my eyes. A card labeled Negroes Who Attended Yale, and in other places on the record, she’s identified as colored. While studying in New Haven, Cromwell lived at 65 Edgewood Avenue, and a letter that she wrote to her father summer of 1922 gives a
wonderful description of graduate study, but also of a savvy women scholar making her way. And to read just a little
bit: Well, I am back in New Haven where at least the nights are cool after hot days. I have a large room facing west with three windows. In the mornings, I work
in the Yale Library which is a quiet, roomy
place in the summertime. In the afternoons, I work in
my room that is at present while I’m making a general
survey of my subject, and it is possible to bring
enough reading material home from the library to
occupy me for several hours. Later on, when my work
becomes more detailed involving a ceaseless
verification of opinions from many sources, I shall
be compelled, I think, to do all of my reading in the library. Although, I’m not absolutely certain, I shall not know for
sure until the department approves, I think I
shall work on some faze of Elizabethan drama. For many points of view, it would be more comfortable to select a subject relating to the Negroes,
but two difficulties stand in the way. The improbability of my
being able from what I know of the possibilities of
the field to get something that would be big enough for the kind of book I’ve got to write. And more importantly,
the fact that any work which I might do in that
line would be absolutely independent, because
naturally, I’d know more about it than any of the folks here. (laughs) In one way, the independent work would show a certain kind of power, but on the other hand, my main object in being here is to learn scholarly method and to benefit by scholarly criticism. Most of all, I want the work I may do in the years to come,
if years are granted me, to be critically sound. I am glad that I have a sense of values. Ambition for place or fame
is not my besetting folly. I wish to do work that I like. Time to keep unembittered
study and perhaps to do this writing some day. That aspiration and making
a place for herself, a place that was not
supposed to be her place, is what the women we celebrate today did years later in community. I am proud to have arrived
as an undergraduate in 1980 in the wake of
this first generation with their revolutionary
example lighting the way. When my classmates and I arrived, it was incredible for us to think that the first class
with women had graduated only a few years before. To ground us in that moment, 1980 Yale didn’t have a woman department chair until three years before we came nor a female provost, nor a
female president of course. Whim ‘n Rythym played its first concert when we were undergrads. The women’s sports team captains’ pictures were first place on the wall
of Mory’s in the eighties. The women’s studies major was approved our sophomore year despite the fact that an English professor
submitted petitions to the faculty referring to it as quote, the department of grossness. That is true. Revolutionary changes
beget natural evolution. You don’t know when
you set foot in a place if you will belong to it for the rest of your life. When you meet someone and are enchanted and even when you come to love them, you cannot know who will
be there for the long road. You cannot know how the
self who enters a place and comes in and then out the other side is changing, emerging, becoming herself. You don’t know which places you will forever belong to. Even the most venerable
and solid institutions, the most resourced and tradition bound, are not static. I love that I could, for example, as Yale English major of
any given decade could do, recite from the first lines
of the “Canterbury Tales,” and that I could do it
together with many of you and reach back centuries. We won’t do it right now,
but we could do it right now. But here’s the point, we belong. We took those words into our bodies. We held them. We said them. We believed them as we took joy in the mastery of memory. We are all, in part, those words, but we are other words too, other rituals, other common denominators. We are not one text. We never were. We belong to an evolving entity that believes in the strong spine of certain traditions,
but also, evolution. Yale has changed. You have helped change it. It will continue to change. Yale was our place to learn from, to demand from, to shout at. And of our school, I have seen it evolve. Lucky to come back and teach for 15 years and see amazing young
people full of brilliance and hope and challenge and verve who knew because of the path-breaking work of this generation that
they were at an institution that had survived
revolutions and evolutions, and that it was their
responsibility to be part of that dynamic process. And I’m also proud, right now, to have my own two sons, my
feminists sons, studying here unable to imagine that ever
could have gone to school without women or been taught only by men or not read books by all
kinds of different people. They literally can’t imagine it. So, Yale men today are feminists too. (crowd applauds) I think that evolution is truly possible when we understand that this
place that was not founded to educate the majority
of us is our place too. Together, out of all of our experiences, we are one alumni body. And even though, we have
had moments where we’ve been on the cusp of huge
and uncomfortable change, this place is ours. I think that one of the
most important things I learned as an undergraduate
at Yale that has guided me through my life that I feel that from this generation,
these Sunflowers, I learned is how to be a productive
outsider at a place I was inside of. The gift of being marginalized is that you have to see kaleidoscopically. The gift of being marginalized is that you always know who is not in the room and how precarious membership can be. That gift teaches that
bringing others into the room is our responsibility, however we may find a way to do it. And so, for the Sunflowers, the classes of ’71, ’72, and ’73,
I hope these few days have been beautiful. I hope they have been full
of somatic remembering. Feeling the first tiny
cool undercurrents of fall in New Haven. Tilting your heads just
so to look up at the tops of these buildings in the sunshine. Turning right or left by
instinct when you enter various buildings. Being glad that there
are now more bathrooms that you can go into. (laughs) Thinking about the good and the bad of it, the glory and the struggle. The vaulting force of what it feels like to burst into a new stage
of your own development in a place that never leaves us. To which we belong and to
which we will hopefully all keep coming back as citizens. We weren’t taught by enough women, but we were taught by legends like Sylvia Ardyn Boone and Marie Borath. We didn’t read many books
but written by women. There weren’t enough
of us in the classroom at the time, but you all came here, and you left your mark. And you learned, and
you took that learning out into the world, and
you changed this place. And you left your names metaphorically and now literally on the
walls and on the ground. Learned what it was to
change an institution and help it evolve as part
of your responsibilities. And I believe it took a
revolution to do that. I want to close with this
short poem by Muriel Rukeyser. One of the best poets I know
on evolution, revolution, and the carefully observed
small moments that make history. And this poem is called Painters: In the cave with a long-ago
flare, a woman stands, her arms up. Red twig, black twig, brown twig. A wall of leaping darkness over her. The men are out hunting
in the early light, but here in this flicker, one or two men, painting and a woman among them. Great living animals
grow on the stone walls, their pelts, their eyes,
their sex, their hearts, and the cave painters
touch them with life, red, brown, black, a woman
among them, painting. Thank you very much. (crowd applauds) (crowd chatters) – Oh. (crowd applauds) – Thank you: In September 1969, the first women undergraduates arrived on campus. With spirit and determination, these women of the classes of 1971, 1972, and 1973 transformed life and
learning in Yale College. (crowd applauds)

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *