Homecoming: Discovering Great American College Art and Architecture
My name is Morgan Powell and this is my fourth blog here at Outdoor Afro. I’m the founder of Bronx River Sankofa - a documentary series on Cable TV and Facebook featuring African-American environmentalists from New York City’s greenest borough. This meditation on the sprawling college campus as outdoor museum will be a departure from the more conventional green profiles I am known for. I hope you enjoy, share and post comments! This one’s for the historic preservationists out there. This piece borrows the motto that, “The greenest building is the one that’s already built.”
Have you ever heard about the Emancipation Oak at Hampton University? This Virginia Landmark on the Chesapeake Bay helps define that fine HBCU campus. It is a silent witness to the freedom of our people through education for over 150 years. Great buildings and great institutional campuses – many inspired by the University of Virginia – can command our attention and tell critical stories too. I have found this to be true at my own alma mater. Did you attend one of our nation’s many temple – hilled public institutions like me? These places, largely built in the exuberant nineteenth century, communicate a powerful sense of place with their generous lawns and buildings inspired by ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. They can be a lot of fun to visit and walk around. Perhaps you live by one such place and can savor their architecture and landscape planning as a free recreational treat. Welcome to mine.
Bronx Community College (B.C.C.) in New York City acquired the former uptown campus of New York University in 1973 under the leadership of Bethune – Cookman University’s second president, James A. Colston. This campus’s most famous landmark is also America’s first hall of fame. The Hall of Fame for Great Americans includes two bronze busts by African-American sculptor Richmond Barthe. There you can see his casts of both Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. Dr. Colston wrote the following letter to his students at the close of the school’s first full academic year. His words say so much about the power of time spent in an exalted place. I like to believe this letter you are about to read was also written out of the mind of a man who contemplated the opportunities and challenges before the Civil Rights Movement’s first children. The sites displayed here -in the order they appear – are: the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, Gould Memorial Library and a composite view featuring the Hall of Fame, Language Hall, and Gould Memorial Library as seen on their west facades.
To the Class of 1974:
The Commencement that will honor your graduation this year is significantly different from all previous such ceremonies in the college’s history. It will be held outdoors in a beautiful, park-like campus setting to mark a new era at Bronx Community College.
You have been fortunate to have experienced the excitement and thrill of moving to a “new” campus, and it is my sincerest wish that the uplifting experience you have had during this first year at the University Heights campus will provide the impetus to your post-BCC phase, be it at a four year college or the world of work. I hope you will come back to visit us and bring that “special” feeling you have as the first graduates of the Heights campus to a reinvigorated Alumni Association.
Of course, we hope to welcome you back not just as alumni but as subscribers to the life-long learning process. Your degree does not close the book on benefits you can derive from BCC. There are many programs and courses, both credit and non-credit, that can help you toward a better career and a better life.
All of us cherish fond memories of the “Old Main Building” [at Creston Avenue and 184th Street] and the mad dashes under the Jerome Avenue El to get to class on time. In those widely separated facilities, we created an inner campus of “spirit.” Even though we now have a real campus, we have all profited from the personal fortitude that enabled us to transcend our surroundings and achieve education and closeness. You are special because you have experienced the best of both worlds.
If there is any lesson to be drawn from your unique experience, it could be that a consciousness of one’s past is the only reference point for determining the future. A life motivated in escaping the past, no matter how humble, will abort any real sense of purpose. We release ourselves from the enslavement of escapism by recognizing the essential connection between past, present and future. The totality of perception is sometimes called heritage or culture. It is the mark of civilized man.
James A. Colston
This article is dedicated to Chuck Vasser who publishes a blog called Community Green. He is a founder and current board member to the Bronx River Alliance whose articles of Incorporation he signed. He first got involved with the Bronx River as an earlier Director of Community Affairs (promoted from Human Resources Director) at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo. He was advocating for active lifestyles, food security and neighborhood greening city-wide as a New York City Housing Authority consultant at the time of publication.