After six years of planning, the Multicultural Center has been officially rededicated as the Davis Center. A weekend full of events marked the dedication, and nearly 200 people attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony in Morley Circle on the steps of Jenness House on Saturday evening. Those present included 29 members of the Davis family. Speakers included Michael Reed, vice president for strategic planning and institutional diversity; John Davis ’63, Allison Davis and Gordon Davis ’63; President Falk; and Lili Rodriguez ’01, director of the Davis Center.
The Center’s new name pays tribute to brothers W. Allison Davis ’24 and John A. Davis ’33. The two College alumni fought racism in education and advocated for the advancement of low-income students. In her director’s note, Rodriguez asserted that “the Davis family legacy is one of exceptional scholarship and activism dedicated to identifying social issues, analyzing potential interventions and having the courage to lead the needed change.” The Davis brothers worked to “dismantle the caste system in America so that this country could better fulfill its promises of opportunity and equality,” according to John Davis, son of John A. Davis.
The Davis Center’s name change was a result of the advisory group’s desire to “reinvigorate a center that was unknown to many, spark conversations that were often avoided and renew the community’s commitment to inclusion and equity,” according to Rodriguez’ director’s note.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Reed explained the challenge of choosing a name that would “satisfy every generation” that will use the new center. Ultimately, there was “absolute agreement on the name we chose,” he said. “While we may argue about what the purpose of the center ought to be and what the new focus ought to be, [the new name] has shoulders that are broad enough to support all of those needs.”
While at the College, the Davis brothers grappled with issues of diversity and discrimination. Despite graduating summa cum laude and as valedictorian of the College in 1924 and earning an M.A. from Harvard, W. Allison Davis was denied a junior faculty position in the College’s English department in 1925. It has become clear that racial bias was the reason for his rejection. W. Allison Davis went on to work addressing effects of social class in education and acculturation. Nearly 50 years after the College denied W. Allison Davis’ application for a teaching position, it bestowed an honorary degree upon him in 1974.
John A. Davis also graduated from the College summa cum laude in 1933. He led a career of political activism, helping to found a grassroots organization to support working African Americans, holding positions in the public sector and supporting the development of relations between emerging independent nations of West Africa and the U.S. In 1979, the College honored him with an honorary degree.
In celebration of the renaming, the Davis Center began events on Friday with a reception at 7:15 p.m., followed by a lecture by political theorist Danielle Allen and a concert by the Los Angeles-based band Ozomatli. On Saturday, attendees of the day’s events viewed films, attended a leadership summit and participated in an interactive workshop, a panel and a café-style chat. The 5 p.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday was followed by a community dinner served in all three dining halls and a keynote address by Johnnetta B. Cole, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and leader of innovative initiatives on diversity, leadership and women’s issues, later that evening.
Reed opened Saturday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, acknowledging the work of people who “came before we christened these buildings.” In his remarks, Falk stressed the impact of 200 years of history on the College. “Colleges move forward into the future by thinking about the past,” Falk said. “We have grown a lot in the last 100 years, but we have enormous work to do.”
Following the weekend’s program, Dean Bolton spoke to the significance of the center’s rededication for the College community. “This was [an] event that was both sort of reflecting on the past and on the present and thinking about the goals of the Center and then also sort of celebrating the work of the Center,” she said. “And there was a way that in those conversations, no one was painting over the pain or struggle that was present in the past, or that continues to be present with us now, and yet people were still celebrating one another and celebrating the work of the Center and celebrating the mission going forward and endorsing and getting excited about that mission. So we were doing both things … and that was actually, I thought, quite remarkable.”
John Davis, Allison Davis and Gordon Davis, descendants of the Davis Center’s namesakes, spoke after Falk. John Davis believes that his father, John A. Davis, and his uncle, W. Allison Davis, would be pleased with the rededication. “It indicates a change in attitude at Williams about culture and opportunity – a change from the Williams they knew and the Williams I knew,” he said.
Allison Davis emphasized this time as one of “reconciliation,” reminding the audience of the “nightmare that was America” for minorities denied opportunities, dues and rights.
Gordon Davis added poignant anecdotes about his father’s experiences with the College throughout the century, illustrating the College’s slow evolution toward equality. He revealed that his father, W. Allison Davis, proud of his education upon graduation from the College, became “deeply embittered” when denied a position in the English department due to racial prejudice. He remained “angry the entire time” at the 1974 ceremony at which the College presented him with an honorary degree, frustrated with the institution’s slow progress. Gordon Davis fondly recalled further change at the College, when the Williams faculty, finally recognizing W. Allison Davis’ achievements, greeted his father before him at Gordon Davis’ own graduation reception in 1982. Gordon Davis recalled the dinner after his graduation at which W. Allison Davis said, “This has been one of the happiest days of my life,” one year before he passed away.
With the new name come two new directions for the Davis Center. Rodriguez confirmed that the Center’s foundation, to “support and advocate for underrepresented voices on campus,” will remain intact. The Center will also retain its “open door policy” of informal counseling.
According to Rodriguez, “normal experiences result in culture shocks” at a place as diverse as the College. The Davis Center is designed to be a resource available for any student. However, the Davis Center will now focus on expanding its use as an academic resource and working with leaders to incorporate diverse experiences into College life.
In particular, staff at the Davis Center are focused on creating new courses and collaborating with faculty to put on lectures in the near future. Rodriguez and Assistant Director of the Davis Center Taj Smith will teach a new spring semester course entitled “The Cycle of Socialization” in the Latina/o studies department. The Davis Center will also work with Junior Advisors, Baxter Fellows and other College leaders to teach them to increase successful communication between and within diverse groups.
Rodriguez concluded Saturday evening’s ceremony by calling the entire Davis family up to the steps of Jenness House. The children and grandchildren of the Davis brothers cooperatively cut the wide red ribbon. Rodriguez then led the crowd in a paraphrased repetition of words of the Davis Center’s new namesakes: In the words of John A. Davis, “we will not hesitate to practice what we have learned.” In the words of W. Allison Davis, “we have charted a course, and now, we will sail.”