By Abby Wargo
Washington College students and alumni gathered to honor the late Maryland congressman Elijah Cummings, mingle, and share their experiences with racism at WC on Saturday, Feb. 8 for the Black Student Union’s alumni mixer.
The mixer, which took place in Hynson Lounge, was held as part of a series of events for Black History Month.
Elijah Cummings’ nephew, Raymond Cummings, class of 1999, provided the keynote speech and accepted the Alumni Affinity Leaders for the Alumni Writer’s Union award on behalf of his late uncle, who passed away in October 2019.
BSU Vice President and senior Ervens Jean-Pierre introduced Raymond Cummings with a slideshow of pictures from Elijah Cummings’ political career, showing him speaking and protesting as well as quotations.
Raymond Cummings first spoke about his own experience at WC.“It is great to be here with old friends and new friends at this school that has given me so much,” he said.
“This place is fantastic in a lot of ways. It has a lot of problems,” he said as the crowd laughed, “and there is a lot of good that is done here and a lot of good that is coming from here. But always be proud that you went here.”
Raymond Cummings shared an anecdote from shortly after his uncle’s death about Caleb, a disabled Asian American man he met at the gym, who told him how his uncle helped him and his family get a tour of the White House.
When Caleb reached out to Elijah Cummings for help getting the tour, Cummings replied the same day and helped arrange a special tour for Caleb and his family.
“He went above and beyond what was asked of him to help someone out,” Raymond Cummings said.
Helping others was a theme in his speech.
“He remains legendary for his late night and pre-dawn emails and phone calls, his ability to thrive on little sleep, and his hustle between Baltimore and D.C. several times a day. Upon his death, my uncle Elijah became the first African American lawmaker to lie in state in the nation’s capital,” Raymond Cummings said.
Beyond Elijah Cummings’ vast political influence, Raymond Cummings talked about the uncle that he knew.
“He saw peace, equality, success, and opportunity for every single American, and he fought for that with every ounce of his being and more, every single day of his life,” Raymond Cummings said. “I cannot speak for his constituents, but to be his relative was to feel a sense of mainstream political representation in an especially personal way and to understand in a profound, special way just how much effort was required to actually be Elijah Cummings.”
“A local boy made good is a pop culture cliché, but a local boy made great is exactly who he was, and he could give one hell of a speech,” Raymond Cummings said.
Raymond Cummings ended his speech with a question for the audience, which he repeated three times to allow it to sink in.
“Is what you are doing right now the highest use of your time?” he asked.
He called the room to action against issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and religious persecution, and implored attendees to devote more of their time to helping others and lifting them up like his uncle did.
“There are myriad ways to translate our anger and disappointment with the world’s cruelties into action, but that action should be as constructive and as positive as we can make it,” he said.
After his speech, Raymond Cummings received applause and a standing ovation, then he accepted the award on behalf of his uncle.
Following the tribute to Elijah Cummings, senior BSU President Jocelyn Elmore gave updates on the club and its events and initiatives.
Elmore said that they made the BSU mixer big this year because it is needed, saying that “black history is every day, not just one month out of the year.”
“We still have to fight today just as hard as you [alumni] fought when you were here… this is our way to keep on pushing through, keep on fighting to get to that end goal so we can all be treated equal and unite as one,” BSU Advisor Erneatka Webster said.
Frederick Douglass visiting fellow 2019 Jason Patterson talked about his project to create art based on the history of African Americans at WC and in Chestertown and Kent County.
“We look at these great people, but we forget to talk about what they were struggling against. So we need to talk about white supremacy,” Patterson said.
He cited several unknown facts about WC which fueled his project, including that the 13th president left the USC because they admitted one black student. The same former president of WC also championed white supremacy and adamantly protested the rights of women and black people to vote.
Patterson also spoke about a 1961 incident. The same year that the first two black students were admitted to WC, many white students performed a show called, “The Minstrel Show Revisited.”
“These are histories we should know about, and you cannot reconcile it until we know what we are reconciling about,” Patterson said.
BSU continued this conversation by citing some of their own struggles to have their voices heard on campus.
Jean-Pierre expressed the need for the club to have a space on campus and entreated the help of the alumni to raise funds to get a house.
Many alumni were surprised to hear this, as they fought in the late 1990s to have a house on campus dedicated to black culture.
Other instances of the erasure of black culture and history at WC were also addressed.
The alumni shared that the first cheerleading squad at WC was founded by black students, which was surprising for current students to hear. When they had gone looking for evidence of a former pep squad in old issues of the Pegasus yearbook, they found nothing.
“This is why we need our alums to back us up and stand up for us,” Webster said. “We need to hear your voices.”
Both alumni and students voiced the need to support one another.
Freshman Jonah Nicholson said, “I, and I am sure none of us, knew anything about this, and I am so sorry they erased your history, but I want that history back, and I want to know how we can get involved, like immediately.”
Felicia Attor, senior and Student Government Association’s secretary of diversity, answered that the BSU needed to push WC administration to act, citing last semester’s cancellation of “The Foreigner” as proof that protest gets things done.
Attor also stressed increased communication between alumni and current students.
“There needs to be more communication between us, because we want to know the history that you guys fought for, because we are fighting for similar things. To be honest, I cannot imagine how it would feel if I came back to WC twenty years later and all the work that we have put into this place is erased,” she said.
Jean-Pierre told the group how a group of students made monkey noises at him in the gym his freshman year. Junior Rhoda Oluwalana described being denied entry at a local elementary school where she was teaching children step dancing routines because of the color of her skin and the clothes she was wearing.
“How else can we show that we are trying to contribute to this community?” Oluwalana said.
Because of these instances, students, faculty, and staff continually leave the school.
“We give up, so we lose an advisor, we lose a faculty or staff member because they are tired of fighting, and there is no trail of these things, so you start all over because there is no history. We want the cycle to stop and figure out a way to make the campus better,” Webster said.
After the open forum, everyone broke into clusters and talked in small groups, sharing stories from WC past and present.
Leah Singleton, class of 2001, said that listening to current students talk about the state of affairs at WC made her “very sad.”
Singleton served as president of the Black Student Union, which was only founded roughly 20 years ago.
The group was called the Black Student Alliance before they were pressured to change it to “Union” because it sounded less ‘scary.’
Colleena Calhoun, class of 1999, was the first president of the then-Black Student Alliance, an experience she described as “tough, but rewarding.”
“Looking back, while it was difficult, it was worth every minute of the experience. Of course, the climate here was, it sounds like much like it is today, only because of who we have as president, people are a little bit more energized about overt racism, whereas with us it was not quite on the same scale. We dealt with a lot of things, and now it sounds like it is more of the same, only maybe a little bit worse,” Calhoun said.
Calhoun said she usually comes back to WC several times a year, although in recent years has slowed. She now has a renewed interest in returning more often to help out and fight for current students.
“The outrage that is expressed here is just because it was such a challenge. There were a lot of late nights, a lot of work that went into it, and to have that erased, much like urban renewal — it is similar, just on a smaller scale,” Singleton said.
Singleton was far from the only alumna unimpressed with the decline in race relations at WC.
Aja Jones, class of 2002, said, “It is heartbreaking as an alum to hear this. Our experience at WC was a lot different.”
Despite the disappointment, alumni were inspired by the current students’ work.
Christalyn Grandison, Vincent Hynson scholar of the class of 2011, said, “I am glad I came. It was eye opening and inspiring. I am going to be intentional about getting former classmates involved.”
Grandison also said that the current students had motivated her to come back more often.
“I love being on campus, but it does sadden me that students are struggling in the same ways we did 20 years ago. I look forward to visiting when the sentiment has changed and the College has progressed,” Singleton said.