What’s On My Mind: Elevating Trailblazers and reflecting our community through art

If you go into almost any building at Vanderbilt, you will find small commemorations to Vanderbilt’s history—photos and paintings of the people who laid the foundation for the great university that we are today.

For many members of our community what stands out most about this artwork, however, is not who’s there, but who’s missing—individuals who look like them, struggles that resonate with their own, legacies that inspire a belief that they, too, can have a lasting impact.

We must ensure that the artwork displayed at Vanderbilt celebrates role models that inspire all members of our rich mosaic. We must acknowledge that, for far too long, many individuals who pushed to make Vanderbilt more inclusive have been largely omitted from portraits and other commemorative artwork on our campus.

To begin to change this visual narrative, last year we commissioned renowned artist Simmie Knox to paint portraits of four of our greatest trailblazers and heroes:

  • Bishop Joseph Johnson, who in 1953 became Vanderbilt’s first African American student and the first African American to earn a bachelor’s degree and then a doctoral degree here. The Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center was dedicated in his honor in 1984.
  • James Lawson, who was expelled from Vanderbilt in 1960 after leading lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. Vanderbilt later reconciled with Rev. Lawson, who went on to donate his papers to the Vanderbilt Libraries’ Special Collections. Professor Dennis C. Dickerson, an expert in American labor history, the history of the civil rights movement, and African American religious history, holds the endowed chair created in Rev. Lawson’s honor. An annual lecture is held in Rev. Lawson’s honor each year and a new scholarship for underrepresented minority students who demonstrate a commitment to civil rights and social justice was named for him earlier this year.
  • Walter R. Murray Jr., who founded the Association of Vanderbilt Black Alumni and was the first African American to serve on the Vanderbilt Board of Trust. The university named a residence hall on The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons and an annual lecture in his honor.
  • Perry Wallace, who broke barriers in 1967 by becoming the first African American varsity basketball player in the SEC. His biography, Strong Inside, by alumnus Andrew Maraniss, was the Commons Reading two years in a row. The university celebrated his legacy through a series of events in 2017, which included a documentary film, Triumph. Two scholarships have been created in his honor, the Perry Wallace Jr. Basketball Scholarship and a named scholarship in engineering.

The first four portraits of the Trailblazer series are hanging in the parlor on the second floor of Kirkland Hall—I encourage you to come see them and learn more about these leaders. We are currently working to determine where each portrait will be permanently displayed to ensure many buildings across campus begin to reflect the beautiful and diverse community that learns, grows, discovers and collaborates within their walls.

I am grateful to Associate Vice Chancellor Tina Smith who led this project, and to Vice Chancellor for Athletics and University Affairs and Athletics Director David Williams, who provided critical input and guidance throughout the process.

The Trailblazers portraits join other efforts to honor our past and inspire our present through building names, art and photography. Smith Hall is named in honor of Kelly Miller Smith, a civil rights leader who worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and was the university’s first African American administrator and assistant dean of the Divinity School. The Legacy Pioneer portraits, which were unveiled last week at the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center, and the Vanderbilt Pioneers program, led by Professor of Philosophy Lucius Outlaw Jr. and Professor of Law and Sociology Beverly Moran, both honor individuals who have advanced diversity and inclusion on our campus.

As we move forward, we aim to expand our other efforts to honor more individuals who broke barriers across gender, race, ethnicity, disability and more. An example is the new Chancellor’s Faculty Fellowships created last year to support STEM leaders in honor of Dorothy J. Wingfield Phillips, who in 1967 was the first African American woman to earn a degree from Vanderbilt. The 2018 fellows are Associate Professor of Chemistry Renã A. S. Robinson and Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering Audrey Bowden, who are each blazing new trails in their fields and mentoring the next generation of students. In 2016, we invested $125 million into a scholarship and a graduate student leadership institute, both named in honor of late Graduate School Dean Russell G. Hamilton, the first African American dean at the university. Both the scholarship and the leadership institute are aimed at increasing diversity and equity in the Graduate School while also providing ongoing career development and support to Vanderbilt’s Ph.D.s. The first cohort of 101 Russell G. Hamilton Scholars is already on campus this year, each forging their own new path in academic leadership.

I hope that these commemorations at Vanderbilt inspire dialogue about where we have been, where we are and where we ultimately want to be as a university. All the members of the Vanderbilt community who have worked so hard to make this the university we know and cherish deserve to be seen and to be known.