Portrait unveiling signals diversity push at Hopkins School making strides toward racial balance

November 07, 1998|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Erin Texeira contributed to this article.

For the first time in the history of the Johns Hopkins University, the image of a non-white person now looks out from a wall on the Homewood campus. And for many, yesterday's unveiling of a portrait of Thurgood Marshall was symbolic of deeper changes in the institution.

The ceremony comes amid a surge in the hiring of non-white faculty, the creation of an inter-departmental major designed to look at the African diaspora and a rise in activism by committees and groups dedicated to diversity on campus.

The portrait, which will hang in Levering Hall, was unveiled at the opening of the school's 11th annual Culturefest, which has grown from a one-night dinner to a weeklong series of performances, parties, lectures and symposiums.

"I could not imagine this happening at Johns Hopkins 10 or 15 years ago," said history professor Ronald Walters, who has been at Hopkins for three decades.

"Back then diversity was something people talked about and then left at home," he said. "It did not affect what they did at work. That is no longer the case."

The portrait climaxes a six-year struggle that started when Rose Varner-Gaskins came to campus to join the Multicultural Student Affairs office. When Varner-Gaskins first walked into Shriver Hall, she looked up to see the all-white faces of the original faculty and a group of women identified as the beauties of Baltimore staring down from the murals above.

"It should not have taken six years to accomplish this," Varner-Gaskins said yesterday. "At this rate, it is going to take 100 years to truly transform our faculty and curriculum."

Varner-Gaskins said that when she and others decided the portrait should be of Thurgood Marshall, they encountered resistance -- he was not a president of the school or a chairman of the board of trustees; in fact, he had nothing to do with Hopkins' history.

"I asked them if that history was only written once," she said. "Here was someone from Baltimore, who grew up not far from here, who was important in the history of African-Americans. It is important that our students look up at the walls and see people who look like them."

Varner-Gaskins credited Larry Benedict, dean for Homewood student affairs, for pushing the project and coming up with the $5,000 paid to artist Nathaniel Gibbs.

"Larry has worked hard to turn this place into a real community," Varner-Gaskins said of Benedict, who came to Hopkins about the same time she did.

Benedict ticked off the changes since then -- an NAACP chapter, a gospel choir, an active Black Student Union, an African-American theater group as well as the growth of a peer counseling program that pairs minority freshmen with similar upperclassmen.

"There are lots of other groups on campus that help students feel a part of the community," he said.

School President William R. Brody said that Hopkins is still living with its legacy as a southern, segregated institution.

The first black to graduate from Homewood -- Frederick I. Scott -- received his diploma in 1950, four years before Thurgood Marshall won his most famous case, Brown vs. Board of Education, before the Supreme Court. As an institution, Hopkins was far from the forefront in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

Scott recently spoke to the school's Black Student Union. "I think people wanted to hear about his struggle," said Nadia Lauder, a senior from Cleveland who is head of the BSU and co-chair of Cul-ture-fest.

"But he talked more about what we needed to do to prepare ourselves, our education, how to be ready if there is a rollback in affirmative action," she said.

Brody said the school has made the best strides in its student body, which is around 30 percent students of Asian descent, 6 percent African-American and 3 percent Hispanic.

"We have made a lot of gains at the staff level also," Brody said. "Our real challenge is with the faculty."

Katrina Bell McDonald, an African-American assistant professor of sociology who has been at Hopkins since 1994, ticked off the numbers among the school's 400 faculty -- "Five African-Americans, one person from the Caribbean, one African," she said. "Maybe you get to two hands counting people of African descent."

But she and others point to three non-whites who will join the faculty next year -- in English, anthropology and the Humanities Center. All were recruited for a program called Comparative American Studies that is focusing on the diaspora of Africans in the Americas.

"The interest is there to expand the program to look at the Asian diaspora as well," said Robert I. Reed-Pharr, an assistant professor of English. "People are realizing that this is not just about multi-culturalism or diversity, it is an opportunity for Hopkins to do some real cutting-edge academic work. That gets people excited around here."

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