10 May 2018

Founders of African American Student Union (AASU) at Harvard Business School Awarded W.E.B. Du Bois Medals

Special ceremony a highlight of conference marking AASU’s 50th anniversary
(LtoR): AASU co- founders Leroy Willis, Theodore Lewis, Lillian Lincoln Lambert, and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. Not pictured: AASU cofounder Clifford Darden, who was unable to attend

BOSTON—Four founding members of the African American Student Union (AASU) at Harvard Business School (HBS)--Clifford Darden (MBA 1969, DBA 1982), Lillian Lincoln Lambert (MBA 1969), Theodore Lewis (MBA 1969), and Leroy Willis (MBA 1969)--were recently awarded the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal, Harvard University’s highest honor in the field of African and African American studies, during a special conference at the School, AASU50. Attendees included several hundred Harvard Business School alumni, faculty, staff, and current students.

The awards, which came as a surprise to the three recipients who were in attendance, were presented by Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard Business School’s Wallace Brett Donham professor Linda Hill (the first black woman to receive a tenured professorship at HBS), and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as part of a sold-out slate of conference activities on the Harvard Business School campus on April 20 and 21 celebrating AASU’s 50th anniversary. [Although unable to attend, Darden received his medal at a later date. AASU’s fifth co-founder, the late George Price (MBA 1970), was honored posthumously and the medal sent to his wife.]

In addition, Kenneth Powell (MBA 1974), longtime president of the African-American Alumni Association, received a Distinguished Service Award in a special ceremony in honor of his decades of dedicated service to that organization.

The Du Bois Medal, named after the first African American scholar (1868-1963; AB 1890, PhD 1895) to receive a doctorate from Harvard University, who went on to be a distinguished professor and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), honors those who have made significant contributions to African and African-American history and culture and, more broadly, individuals who advocate for intercultural understanding and human rights in an increasingly global and interconnected world. Previous recipients have included scholars, artists, writers, journalists, philanthropists, and public servants whose work has bolstered the field of African and African American studies.

In an eloquent keynote address that helped open the two-day conference, Gates, Harvard’s Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of its Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, paid tribute to “the HBS 5,” who founded AASU in the midst of the turmoil of 1968, a year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, urban unrest, and rising death tolls from and protests against the Vietnam War.

“Into that [milieu] stepped a handful of black members of the incoming 700-member HBS Class of 1969,” said Gates. “Five of them would change history, and it is their actions that ultimately led to the organization we commemorate today. Arriving on campus in the fall of 1967, they each would have to answer the same question every black incoming student at Harvard had faced since Reconstruction. Would they, in the words of the great W.E.B. DuBois, be ‘in Harvard, but not of’ Harvard?”

“Ladies and gentlemen, let us seize on this anniversary,” Gates exhorted, “to remember that we can always serve and, in serving, make a difference, even through the founding of a black student union. And let us never doubt in these troubled times that if we hold firm to our moral conscience and our faith, to our shared history and the possibilities it secured for us, ‘the tragic midnight’ of our time ‘will be transformed,’ as Dr. King said, ‘into the glowing daybreak of freedom and justice.’”

The conference, which was planned by Professor Hill, Senior Lecturer Tony Mayo, Visiting Scholar Laura Morgan Roberts, Project Director Taran Swan (MBA 1991), and the staff of the Harvard Business School Leadership Initiative, commemorated AASU’s founding and its catalytic role in advancing African American business leadership as well as the vibrant and important role that African Americans have played in shaping Harvard Business School, the business world, and society at large. It began with welcoming remarks by President Faust and Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria, who had noted that “This anniversary provides an opportunity to celebrate and recognize the important ways in which African Americans have made a difference in the world.”

Among the conference’s many memorable highlights was an assemblage of black CEO panelists—Arnold Donald of Carnival Corporation; Thasunda Duckett of Chase Consumer Banking at JPMorgan Chase; Marvin Ellison of J.C. Penney Company; Ann Fudge, formerly of Young & Rubicam; Clarence Otis, Jr., formerly of Darden Restaurants; Corey Thomas of Rapid7; Bernard Tyson of Kaiser Permanente; and Lisa Wardell of Adtalem Global Education—all focusing on a discussion of the topic “Lessons from the Top: Leading in an Age of Disruption and Uncertainty.” In addition, a series of fireside chats featured Bozoma Saint John, chief brand officer of Uber; Richelieu Dennis, founder, CEO, and executive chairman of Sundial Brands, and founder and chairman of Essence Ventures; and Kenneth Frazier, chairman and CEO of Merck.

Conference participants also viewed a specially commissioned film documenting the journey and impact of African Americans during the past half century at Harvard Business School and visited a special exhibit at Baker Library titled “Agents of Change: The Founding and Impact of the African-American Student Union, Harvard Business School.” The exhibit, which will be open to both the HBS community and the public until next fall, showcases not only the five AASU founders and their efforts, achievements, and influence, but early black student pioneers such as Wendell Cunningham (MBA 1915), the first known African American HBS graduate; Norris Herndon (MBA 1921), Benjamin Johnson (MBA 1921); Monroe Darling (MBA 1931; and Naylor Fitzhugh (MBA 1933).

The conference ended with a Distinguished Alumni Award Ceremony honoring Heidi Brooks (MBA 2003), chief operating officer of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and Frank Baker (MBA 2001), managing director of Siris Capital Group.

“The AASU50 conference provided all of us with an extraordinary opportunity to learn about and take pride in the impact of generations of African Americans on Harvard Business School and beyond,” said Professor Hill. As one alumnus concluded, “AASU50 means that there are many reasons for future generations of African Americans to attend HBS, take the baton, and run farther and faster than we did.”


Jim Aisner

Cullen Schmitt

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 250 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and PhD degrees, as well as more than 175 Executive Education programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching, to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The School and its curriculum attract the boldest thinkers and the most collaborative learners who will go on to shape the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.