College celebrates Prof. Brown’s life

September 21, 2016 by Marit Björnlund, Executive Editor

People gathered to remember Professor of History Leslie Brown in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance on Saturday.

Equal parts humorous and poignant, the memories shared at the service encompassed Brown’s love and passion for her academic work as well as for the people around her at the College and elsewhere. Faculty from the history department, Chaplain to the College Rick Spalding, and Brown’s partner Annie Valk, associate director for public humanities and lecturer in history, organized the event.

The memorial gathering began with words from Spalding, who expressed the College community’s gratitude for having known Brown. Spalding quoted one of Brown’s students in articulating the importance she will continue to have in the lives and work of those who knew her: “Today, and always, I will speak Leslie Brown’s name.”

The next speaker was Nancy Hewitt, professor emerita of history and women’s and gender stud-ies at Rutgers. Hewitt discussed getting to know Brown during her Ph.D. studies at Duke, detailing some of the energy and passion Brown brought to her work.

“Leslie was especially adamant about how she envisioned her dissertation,” Hewitt said, recalling Brown’s ambitious, thoughtful project.

In addition to her work during graduate school on the massive “Behind the Veil” oral history project and on her dissertation, Brown, in the past several decades “continued to document the multifaceted experiences of black Americans and women,” Hewitt said. Through her work and through the people she knew, Brown’s “intellectual insights and imagination, along with her collaborative spirit, live on,” Hewitt said.

The next speaker was Alex Byrd, associate professor of history at Rice and a close friend of Brown’s from her time at Duke.

“What a phenomenal woman, Leslie Brown,” Byrd said. “A lot of us met her through her work — the work of recovering and preserving African American history, the work of learning that a great deal of that work could be lonely … The work of learning that we had a lot to teach each other.”

Next was Don Polite ’13, whose course and thesis work with Brown profoundly affected his life and intellectual path. “Leslie Brown had a gift for pushing students to find new truth on their own,” Polite said.

He described her as empowering, and recalled how she celebrated her students’ achievements even as she pushed them to reach higher.

“To know that someone so brilliant, so warm and so wise believed in me was more than I could ever ask for,” Polite said. “The most difficult part for me is to know that I still had so much more to learn from Leslie.”

Polite’s classmate Giselle Lynch ’13 spoke next and described her relationship with Brown as “sacred.” “I took every class of hers, practically majoring in her,” Lynch said, but even more importantly, “Professor Brown’s love changed me,” she said. In her first class with Brown, Lynch, a first-generation college student, said that, “for the first time, I felt like someone thought I was brilliant.”

Lynch also described a few times when Brown “[made] a way when I thought there was none,” advocating for Lynch with “unfailing” love. “[She] believed in my potential and actively fought for it,” Lynch said. “For that I thank Professor Brown, for all of her love … for making me look a little bit more like her.”

Kevin Walsh ’17 followed Lynch, speaking about his memorable experience in Brown’s “History Behind the Headlines” course this past spring. In how she pushed students to challenge their own and others’ beliefs, “Professor Brown was the epitome of what a Williams College education should be,” Walsh said.

Tayana Fincher ’17 said that Brown’s small “acts of inclusion,” even just nods as they passed by each other, made her feel more welcome on the College’s campus even before they had officially met. Fincher also talked more specifically about her experience in Brown’s class this spring, when Brown was already becoming sick with cancer but maintained an “aura of liveliness” despite the pain.

“She was a warrior in my eyes,” Fincher said. “She was confrontational in all the right ways — comfort was not her concern. She confronted us with the unbounded truth.

The next speaker was Jerry Byers, the associate manager of Paresky Center for Dining Services, accompanied by his colleague, snack bar attendant Tricia Koch. “This is not typically something that we do in our capacity here at the College,” Byers said — highlighting again Brown’s important work in making all voices heard and valued. “I don’t really know Professor Brown as Professor Brown,” Byers said, “I know her as Leslie.”

He told the story of the first time he met her, when she confronted him, asking why he made the ladies working hard at snack bar cook and clean at the same time, leaving Byers “dumb-founded.” In Byers’ anecdotes, Brown “always had some statement to make … and every day she ended the statement with, ‘These ladies are awesome.’” The stories were more examples of Brown’s thoughtfulness and care for the entire community.

Sankofa Step Team then performed a short piece. In an emotional introduction, Sankofa member Sharai Dottin ’18 said the group was dancing “not to mourn, but to celebrate” the life of the woman who “just helped me be so much more confident in who I was, who I am as a black woman on this campus.” Gina Coleman ’90, a middle school principal in Pittsfield and former associate dean of the College, also performed a song.

Following the performance, a few faculty colleagues from the College paid tribute to Brown. Gretchen Long, professor of history and director of the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford, began by honoring Valk, thanking her for her courage and grace. Long then spoke of how Brown’s office, down the hall from her own, was always crowded with students and always sounded like people were arguing.

Of her own relationship with Brown, Long said that in “some of my best times with Leslie, when we weren’t busting out laughing, we were arguing,” and Leslie demanded that, “what you say makes sense logically and morally.”

Long and Brown are both historians of African American history, and Long described some of the unique challenges of that discipline, including the lack of written documents. She lauded Brown’s “commitment to writing some of those wrongs and preserving the voices of African Americans,” including her work on the “Behind the Veil” project.

The next speaker was Ari Solomon, professor of psychology reading remarks written by Sarah Bolton, former dean of the College. “Leslie was the star by which so many of us navigated,” Bolton wrote. Bolton noted how Brown championed a diverse group of people, supported a diverse group of students and worked on a diverse range of projects in the College community. Brown made people feel that they mattered, as well as helping them learn, and “Leslie did all of this in a way that was tremendously personally generous,” Bolton said. “As a friend, her kindness, wisdom, honesty, strength and love were palpable every moment.”

Bolton wrote of Brown’s humor and tough love:

“No one laughed at our foibles, our foolishness, the ways we took ourselves too seriously, as much as Leslie did. Leslie was brilliant at taking the stuffing out of people, and at the same time making absolutely clear how much she loved and treasured them.”

Bolton wrote of the last time she saw Brown in the hospital, and of meaningful moments teaching with Brown.

“If ever there were a person for whom it is true that they live on through the lives of those they have taught, it is Leslie Brown,” Bolton said.

The final speaker was professor of history Charles Dew, who chose to again focus on Brown’s sense of humor, noting:

“She always found the humor somewhere, somehow, and got us to laugh when we didn’t think we could.”

He described teaching a winter study class with Brown, “The South in Black and White,” that was one of the most memorable teaching experiences he’s had. Through three recent stories of interactions with Brown, including her love for McDonald’s mango pineapple smoothies, Dew touched on the “joy she brought to life.”

He portrayed Brown as a “superhero … fearless, determined crusader for justice, an amazing person. If ever a Wonder Woman walked the Earth, it was Leslie Brown.”

Dew’s words were followed by a few moments of silence; a song performed by Rhon Manigault-Bryant, associate dean of the faculty and associate professor of Africana studies; and closing words from Spalding.

After the memorial, many attendees gathered for a reception in the Faculty House to continue remembering Brown and reflecting on her legacy.

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