The 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King was an unthinkable tragedy that prompted a critical national discussion about race, privilege, and access. Here at Tufts, that resulted in an increase in African-American enrollment, thanks to scholarships, as well as recruitment efforts led largely by students. According to the late Gerald Gill, the legendary Tufts associate professor of history, there were around forty black students on campus in 1966, a number that grew to about two hundred fifty per year for the decade after King’s death.

Embracing opportunities sometimes denied to black students in the past, these new arrivals flourished and contributed to all aspects of college life, including lobbying for more African-American faculty, securing campus leadership positions, and even reviving the cheerleading squad—all the while creating enduring bonds that didn’t diminish with graduation. Through forty years of life’s ups and downs, they’ve maintained a strong professional network and gathered at weddings, milestone birthdays, and funerals. To get a sense of what that has been like, I recently reached out to a number of African-American Jumbos whose connection began on campus.

This bond was all the more important as the enrollment bump coincided with Boston’s busing and public-school desegregation crisis. The people I interviewed said they were the targets of racial taunting, and even violence, from people in the communities surrounding Tufts, but described the university itself as a bubble of relative safety. Yet they often felt left out on campus and had difficulty accessing professors and other resources. So they supported one another by studying together, making their own fun, and creating a vibrant community at the Afro-American Cultural Center, later renamed the Africana Center. “We were really interested in making sure everyone was successful,” said Eric T. Washington, A76. “I don’t know if I would have loved my Tufts experience as much if not for my close relationships.” Ahead, a tight-knit group of six alums reflect on their experience.

 

Harold Sparrow

Harold Sparrow, A78

Degree: B.A., Political Science

Sparrow said that feelings of disenfranchisement spurred him and his African-American contemporaries at Tufts to actively engage in campus civic life: voting, running for political positions, and advocating for change. Everyone’s individual contribution made his university network stronger, he said, quoting the African proverb “I am because we are.”

Sparrow applies the same lessons as CEO of the YMCA Hartford. “You can change the culture and the community,” he said. “I see myself doing that with my work at the YMCA.”

But while his life has changed, some things have remained the same. Decades after graduation, he said, his Tufts classmates are still his nearest and dearest circle. “I don’t make friends like I used to.”

 

Valerie Williams

Valerie “Val” Williams, J76

Degree: B.S., Occupational Therapy

Tufts was “idyllic,” Williams said. She grew up in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury, just ten miles away—but campus felt like another world. She joined the basketball cheerleading squad, which had been defunct until a group of black coeds restarted it in the 1970s. “We were sassy and bold,” Williams said.

Her social life revolved around the Afro-American Center. “We declared ourselves the cool kids,” she said. “We made a safe playground for each other to develop in.” At Tufts, Williams also found a model for the future. She sought out deep conversations and learned to build trust, be vulnerable, and forge lasting relationships.

She’s deployed these skills throughout her forty-year career, first as an occupational therapist and now as an executive coach. In many ways, then, Williams is still a cheerleader. She’s not surprised her college friends are all so successful. “It was hard to leave Tufts,” she said, “but the world was calling.”

 

Keith Wright

Keith L.T. Wright, A77

Degree: B.A., Political Science

Wright arrived at Tufts with a background in public service and social activism from his time at New York’s Fieldston School. He played football during his first two years at Tufts. But once it became clear he didn’t have a future on the field, he shifted his attention to academics and campus life, becoming interested in politics after studying abroad in Ghana, a passion that only deepened with the arrival, in 1975, of political science associate professor Pearl Robinson. She is “an absolute intellectual,” Wright said. “I tried to soak in everything that came out of her mouth. She is a great teacher, just fabulous, and a great human being.”

Wright went on to law school and in 1992 ran for office in the New York State Legislature backed by his Tufts pals who helped him campaign. “There was a sense that if one of us was in office, all of us were there,” Wright said. He won and held a seat in the New York State Assembly, Seventieth Assembly District, until 2016. For several years beginning in 2006, he also served on the Board of Advisors for the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.

“Tufts was fertile ground for whatever you were going to do later in life,” said Wright, who currently works as a lobbyist. “Certainly, the relationships I made were important.”

 

Joyce Robinson

Joyce Robinson (née Davidson), J78

Degree: B.A., Sociology

“We went to Tufts during a tumultuous time,” Robinson said. “We had to put up with a lot.” Drivers would shout racist slurs as cars whizzed past. People would come onto campus just to start fights. “They would call you the n-word right to your face,” Robinson remembered. This hostility caused the African-American student community to band together socially, academically, and literally—they walked in groups for safety.

Robinson said this support system continued long after graduation. As they began careers and graduate school, her friends stayed close. They show up for each other still, traveling from afar to celebrate milestones and to mourn, such as when their good friend Eddie Beltran, A79, lost his wife, Jill Billups, J79.

After Tufts, Robinson quickly climbed the corporate ladder, working at Kraft Foods and Allstate in operations and management. She retired early, but recently went back to work at Kraft Foods. “I’m confident in who I am,” said Robinson, who partly credits Tufts for her moxie. “All of us are confident in who we are.”

 

Eric Washington

Eric T. Washington, A76

Degree: B.A., Political Science

Washington said that the bonds of friendship in the group were only strengthened by the racial tensions swirling around greater Boston during his time at Tufts. “Students of color had to bond together in a predominantly white institutional environment,” he said

Initially, Washington was interested in medicine, but the political climate inspired him to take classes at the Fletcher School. He then met his mentor, Bernard Harleston, a former professor and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences (South Hall was recently renamed Harleston Hall in his honor). Washington went on to law school and later became the longest-serving chief judge in the history of the District of Columbia Courts. He stepped down in March 2017 as chief judge in the Court of Appeals. Washington credits Harleston as the model for his own judicial temperament. “He is calm in the face of turmoil,” Washington said.

Washington gives back to Tufts by serving on the Board of Advisors for the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.

 

Betty Hewlett

Elizabeth “Betty” Hewlett, J76

Degree: B.A., Political Science

Hewlett met many of her lifelong friends during Tufts orientation week (she’s even godmother to a few of their children). “Every decade or so, I bring my close friends together for a party,” Hewlett said. “That’s my way of celebrating folks that I love.” When she turned sixty in 2015, Williams, Robinson, Sparrow, Wright, and Washington—plus dozens of other Jumbos—traveled to Maryland from across the country to mark the occasion. “We have a tremendous vibrancy,” Hewlett said. “You would never know how old we are.”

After Tufts, Hewlett also went to law school and then became the first African-American and the first woman to chair the Prince George’s County Planning Board, and the first African-American to chair the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Hewlett got into every college she applied for, but once she visited Tufts, she knew that she’d found home. “It was the single best decision I ever made,” she said.

Grace Talusan, J94, teaches writing in the Tufts English department.