Over a century ago, when it was virtually unheard of for minorities to obtain higher education, Edward A. Bouchet 1874 GRD 1876 studied physics at Yale University and became the first black to receive a doctorate in the United States. His legacy was celebrated yesterday in a ceremony commemorating his 150th birthday.
A diverse audience of about 300 community leaders, Yale students and children from nearby grade schools attended the event at Battell Chapel. The celebration included historical commentary, awards inspired by Bouchet’s example and speeches concerning what can be done in the future to continue increasing the number of minorities who pursue graduate research.
The highlight of the ceremony was a speech given by Freeman A. Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. His topic, “Educating Minorities for Research Careers: Overcoming the Odds,” displayed both a concern for the future of minority students and an awareness of the legacy of Bouchet, who mentored minority graduate students throughout the last quarter of the 19th century.
“Today is a time when Yale is more challenged than ever before,” Hrabowski said.
He spoke of the need to continue increasing the numbers of minority students entering graduate programs. His talk also included ideas about how to encourage all types of children to excel at all levels of education, with a special emphasis on the importance of every child learning a love of reading.
The ceremony also included the presentation of awards to the guests of honor. Hrabowski, the keynote speaker, and Yale chemistry professor Dieter G. Soll were given the Bouchet Leadership Awards in Minority Graduate Education. Both men have experience in helping to bring minority students into graduate programs.
The story of Bouchet’s life, from his early eduction at the Hopkins School, to his work at Yale and his career after graduation, was also told in detail during the ceremony.
“I just found the whole thing very inspiring,” Tamiesha Frempong ’97 MED ’04 said.
The local elementary school students in attendance were also influenced by what they heard. Teachers brought the fourth- and sixth-graders from Wexler-Grant Community School on Foote Street to the celebration as a midday break from standardized tests. After the conclusion of the ceremony, the children briefly discussed what they had seen with their teachers.
“You can be just like Edward Bouchet,” Eleanor Willis, a library media specialist at Wexler-Grant, said to the children as they shared their thoughts on the event.
Though the students displayed a lot of enthusiasm for the birthday cake that was served at the reception, they also seemed to appreciate the less tangible aspects of the day’s events. Several students mentioned that learning to read well is an important step toward success, while others spoke of wanting to become scientists.