It was a change for the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. In a space that has hosted enough leaders and politicians to rival CNN, suddenly there was song.
Negro spirituals by the group DivinePURPOSE filled the hall Dec. 4 as Henry Louis Gates Jr. led the ninth annual Du Bois Medal ceremony, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute‘s highest honor, which goes to individuals whose work has made a significant contribution to African and African-American culture. Gates, director of the institute and the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. University Professor, called the event, which was co-sponsored by the Institute of Politics, “the biggest of the year.”
The music was just part of the uplifting but poignant commemoration, sobered by the death a month ago of one of the honorees, Cambridge storytelling legend Hugh M. “Brother Blue” Hill ’48. Blue was a decades-long fixture around Boston and Cambridge, renowned for his tales, which he spun while wearing his trademark bright blue clothing and a butterfly necklace. Blue’s widow, Ruth Edmonds Hill, accepted his medal for what Gates described as “his desire to build a better world, one story at a time.”
Writer and journalist Calvin Trillin was on hand to present the award to his friend, journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, whom he first met in Georgia, when Hunter-Gault was 19 and “already sassy,” he said.
Hunter-Gault and Hamilton E. Holmes were the first blacks admitted to the University of Georgia in 1961, ending segregation there, amid riots and controversy.
“I was a reporter then, covering the Civil Rights struggle,” Trillin recalled, “and I noticed that, even at that age, she had the ability to stand outside what was happening to her and observe it ironically.”
Trillin thanked Hunter-Gault for his “education in the South.” He said, “I thought I had a pretty good understanding of segregation,” but was ultimately schooled when Hunter-Gault informed him of an unpleasant train ride she’d had, and Trillin replied, “I thought that was supposed to be a great train?” Hunter-Gault responded, “Not where we have to sit.”
“I realized I hadn’t understood much about segregation until then,” said Trillin. “I’m happy to say that, partly because of her efforts, she can sit anywhere she pleases.”
“I actually feel quite at home,” said Hunter-Gault, accepting her medal. “I feel as though I am a child of Du Bois, and I will wear this proudly.”
William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, introduced another award winner, New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert, saying that Herbert strove to “arouse the consciousness of the masses with his stories on social justice,” and labeled him a “humble man, and a great listener.”
“Many of Bob Herbert’s articles are about people in trouble, often through no fault of their own, and their misfortunes are not rare,” said Wilson. “And Herbert insightfully traces these problems to abuses of power and social injustice, not only in this country, but around the world.”
Herbert argued his own humility, joking that newspaper columnists need “the arrogance to rant and rave 100 or more times a year.”
“But I do feel humble tonight,” he said, noting that his father — just one generation back — could’ve never have held Herbert’s jobs.
Also honored were philanthropists Daniel and Joanna S. Rose, who helped to fund many educational and cultural institutions, including the Du Bois Institute, where they are members of the National Advisory Board; Frank H. Pearl, the Perseus Books founder; and Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman, who was honored for her devotion to African-American studies, which led to establishing the Center for African American Studies at Princeton in 2006.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annette Gordon-Reed recounted how she came to know lawyer and political adviser Vernon E. Jordan Jr., another medal winner, when he contacted her to help write his memoir “Vernon Can Read!”
“The truth, of course, is that Vernon Jordan helped change my life, even before we first met,” said Gordon-Reed.
Jordan’s legal career began with his clerk work in the landmark desegregation case that admitted Hunter-Gault to the University of Georgia.
“Vernon Jordan has been an extraordinary presence in American history for nearly half a century,” said Gates. “He has guided us all to a much better place.”
Jordan said that in his senior year at a “dilapidated, segregated” Georgia high school, he was offered admission to Dartmouth College by the president of the Atlanta-based alumni association.
“He told me, ‘We want you to go to Dartmouth College, get a good education, and then come back to Atlanta and be a Booker T. Washington for your people.’”
Washington and Du Bois disagreed on the strategies for how best to attain progress for blacks. Washington pushed for blacks to advance their own lives but to accept discrimination; Du Bois argued against that aspect, and helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Jordan did not accept the Dartmouth offer, instead attending DePauw University. “I am a W.E.B. Du Bois man,” he said. “That’s why this medal means so much to me.”
To view the event.