Two days before Courtney Woods dresses in a cap and gown for Harvard’s traditional commencement, she will don a stole made of African kente cloth and address the crowd at a somewhat different event: a graduation ceremony for black students.
Student organizers said the event, called Black Commencement 2017, is the first universitywide ceremony for black students at Harvard and is designed to celebrate their unique struggles and achievements at an elite institution that has been grappling with its historic ties to slavery.
More than 170 students and 530 guests have signed up to attend the ceremony, which will be held May 23 at Holmes Field, near the Harvard Law School campus. The event will feature speeches by black students, alumni, and administrators.
“I can only imagine how special I will feel when I walk across that stage and be able to honor my identity and my struggle at Harvard,” said Woods, who is completing a master’s degree at the Graduate School of Education. “I know this is exactly what students like me need to be inspired as we leave this place as emerging global leaders.”
Similar ceremonies have been held for Harvard undergraduates as well as for students at Stanford, Columbia, Temple, and other campuses. On May 23, Harvard will also hold its third annual graduation ceremony for students of Latin American descent.
The ceremony for black students was created during a period of heightened activism related to racism on college campuses and in the country at large — from the Black Lives Matter movement to the increased focus on “micro-aggressions,” passing comments that seem to trivialize or marginalize the experiences of minorities.
At Harvard, the campus has also undergone a season of soul-searching.
Last year, Drew Faust, university president, and Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who is a civil rights icon, unveiled a plaque commemorating four slaves who had been owned by Harvard presidents. The university also agreed to redesign the Harvard Law School shield, which was modeled on the family crest of an 18th-century slaveholder.
Woods said the black graduation ceremony will recognize that history, as well as the challenges that black students face today, including what she called a lack of social, emotional, and academic support. In 2015, 5 percent of the 7,595 degrees that Harvard awarded went to black students.
“Your parents, your colleagues, and those who are there in the audience are there to celebrate you because they know your common struggle,” Woods said. “There’s a shared history, there’s a shared struggle, there’s a shared identity.”
Black graduation events have sometimes sparked criticism that they are divisive.
But the ceremony is “not about segregation,” said Michael Huggins, president of the Harvard Black Graduate Student Alliance, which is organizing the event. Students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds may attend, he said, and the black students taking part in the ceremony also plan to attend the university’s official commencement on May 25 in Harvard Yard.
“The primary reason we wanted to do this is we really wanted to come together to celebrate Harvard black excellence and brilliance,” said Huggins, who is graduating from the Kennedy School. “This is really an opportunity for students to build fellowship and build a community.”
Every graduate at the event will receive a stole made of kente cloth, as a symbol of their African heritage. And while there will be tributes to the students’ successes, some of the speakers also plan to bluntly confront the challenges facing the black community, said Jillian Simons, a law school student who is incoming president of the Harvard Black Graduate Student Alliance.
“There’s an element of celebration and a very somber tone to it because of the things we’ve had to overcome,” she said.
Planning for the event started last July. The administration has been supportive, organizers said, and many of the graduate schools have donated money to help pay for the ceremony. The students said they have raised $27,000 so far.
While most of those attending are graduate students, organizers said they hope to expand the event to include more undergraduates next year. Black students make up just under 14 percent of the students accepted into Harvard’s undergraduate class of 2020.
“This is an opportunity to tell everyone that we’re here and we’re an important part of the culture at Harvard,” Huggins said. “And if you want to learn more about that, then come.”