In 1968, my father, John S. Harwell, became the first Black admissions officer at Harvard College. I grew up knowing it was a big deal, but the monumentalism of his pioneering role faded over time. However, I was reminded of its significance on September 15, 2014. That night, I came home from a challenging City Council meeting both tired and wired. My family was asleep, so I decided to catch up on my MSNBC fix before going to bed.
That night, Lawrence O’Donnell used his last 5 minutes to eulogize Chase Peterson (1925-2014), who served as Dean of Admission at Harvard in the 1960’s and 1970’s. O’Donnell focused not on Peterson’s plucking him out of South Boston and changing his life, but on Peterson’s bold hiring of my dad, as a proxy for who Peterson was and the import and impact of his legacy.
How Harvard even knew of JSH is one of our favorite family stories. One of the demands of an early protest by Black students at Harvard was for a “Black Admissions Officer.” When the university was reporting back to the Black students on their progress toward their demands, the one they could not fulfill was the Black Admissions Officer—it was a unicorn, no such creature existed. A graduate student called BS and said if they had really been looking, they would have found John Harwell by now. JSH had been his high school economics teacher.
The first time Harvard called, my mother Bettye assumed it was a prank and hung up. It was the spring of 1968, the Democratic Convention was coming to Chicago, and dad was working with Vernon Jordan at the Urban League—“so Harvard University calling” was either ridiculous or dangerous. Luckily, Harvard called back.
Summer of My Discontent
I have been thinking about and struggling over this essay ever since the Supreme Court decision was announced. Even though I knew the decision was coming, it felt personal to me; it felt like an attack on my father’s legacy.
My father was a pioneer, and his work was unbelievably hard, if for no other reason than because it was new. Finding talented kids who would excel at Harvard was the easy part; then as now they are a dime a dozen, if we are willing to truly look for them. Getting them admitted with the resources they would need to thrive was the hard part.
Ironically, just as my father’s work became easier internally, as his colleagues got to know him and trust him, as the students he championed did in fact excel and contribute, externally the work became harder because the politics changed. Thus, when I entered the field, and would call him for advice or just to vent, he was often silent for a bit. And then he would say, “I can’t believe you are saying the same things your mother and I would talk about in 1968. How can that be?”
The Supreme Court ended “Affirmative Action” because for the last 40 years, we have not been having an honest conversation about affirmative action, nor have we been honest about what it really means and how it is really practiced when it is done well.
Back in the 1990’s the editor of the student newspaper at the private school where I worked came to interview me about the “affirmative action policies” of our school’s admissions office. As we were talking, I asked him how he became editor.
When I was in middle school, I wrote an essay for English class. My teacher gave the essay to the editors of the paper. When it was published, I barely recognized it, it had been edited so much. But I had a byline right there in the paper. I never missed a meeting since that day—and now I am editor.
I loved the story then, and I love it now. It says so much about what good teachers do. To that young man, son of professional parents, growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and privately educated PK to 12th grade, I said:
Ah, so you were affirmatively acted upon. You had a positive experience manufactured for you both by your teacher and the editors. But of course, the moral of the story is not how you first got published in the school newspaper, as a middle schooler, but what you did with the opportunity once you had it. You seized that opportunity, worked hard, remained dedicated, and rose to the top job.
Shouldn’t every kid have the chance to be affirmatively acted upon, to have a positive experience open a door of opportunity for them? This was the work my father did, and Harvard was better for it. In fact, the USA is better for it.
May 17, 2024, will be the 70th Anniversary of the Brown v Board of Education decision and yet NJ is the 6th most segregated state for Black children and the 7th for Latino children. JFK issued the “Affirmative Action” Executive Order in 1961 and yet the racial wealth gap is both persistent and pernicious.
As Jonathan Welburn, a researcher at RAND, says:
“Yesterday's segregation is today's wealth gap. We like to pretend that we live in a race-neutral, merit-based society now, that this is all in the past, but you can't erase history. It shows up in our wealth. For many, it shows up in the lack of wealth.”
Our American experiment is not finished, in fact, it has barely begun. We have so much work to do to live up to our creed and our inspiring myths.
Having finished this essay, I will allow myself to wallow in my frustration and discontent for another month.
And then, in September with the start of a new school year, “in spite, to spite, and despite” (a favorite phrase of my father’s) the Supreme Court, I will find the energy and the fortitude to keep fighting inequality, whenever and however I can.
It is what my father would have wanted.
I am fortunate to be in an organization built for the fight. I hope you will join us.
Greater Bergen Community Action—Lives Changed Here.
To read the entire essay CLICK HERE.