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Powerful Voice for Black Students at Rutgers Honored for Advocacy after King Assassination

African-American Alumni Alliance recognizes pioneering achievements of 1970 graduate .

Editor's note: This article has been reprinted with the permission of Rutgers Today.

By Fredda Saccharow

When C. Maxene Vaughters-Summey arrived at Douglass College as a student in the fall of 1966, the faculty boasted one black professor, Cecelia Hodges Drewry, in the Speech and Drama Department. One black secretary served on the staff.

In the four tumultuous years that followed, Douglass College, forerunner of today’s Douglass Residential College, installed its first African-American assistant dean. It also introduced black-oriented student programming and classes in black history and literature and took the first steps toward establishing an African-American Studies cultural house.

For her role in helping to bring about such change, for her advocacy on behalf of her fellow students, the Rutgers African-American Alumni Alliance recently inducted Summey into its Hall of Fame, an honor she shares with fewer than 50 other alumni.

Although the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, certainly strengthened Summey’s resolve to increase the black presence on campus, the sociology major says the sentiment had been building on campus for several years.

“Rutgers had already launched deliberate efforts to enroll more African-American students,” she recalls. “My class at both Rutgers and Douglass – the Class of 1970 -- represented the largest number that had been admitted to that point. We were like the trail blazers in that respect.”

It was a period of great social upheaval: anti-war protesters demonstrating against the Vietnam War, young people distrusting anyone over 30, the civil rights era giving way to the black power movement.  Then came news out of Memphis, Tennessee that the young reverend had been slain, and campuses nationwide erupted.

“When Dr. King, such an iconic figure, was assassinated, it sent a message that if they’re going to destroy this man, it was even more incumbent upon us to advance our agenda,” says Summey.

On the night of the assassination, black students from Rutgers and Douglass gathered on the Douglass Campus, solemnly marched to College Avenue, lowered the American flag and raised it – upside down. During the following weeks, the Board of Governors, Rutgers Student Council and the Douglass Government Association (GA) would pass resolutions to combat the racism they described as prevalent on the New Brunswick campuses.

Black students at Douglass worked with members of the GA to establish teams of students to hold race-relation discussions in residence halls and student centers.

Summey helped found the Douglass Black Student Committee (DBSC) to create a formal organization for articulating and negotiating black students’ concerns.

In February of 1969, less than a year after the King assassination, the black student organizations at Rutgers’ campuses in New Brunswick, Camden and Newark developed a unified plan for protests, an approach Summey says required careful timing and good communications. The university cancelled classes and held workshops to discuss racial issues

As DBSC’s second president, Summey worked with dean Marjorie Foster to establish six committees, all with black student representation, to respond to demands with regard to admissions, scholarships, counseling, personnel, curriculum and programming. The committees set admission goals to increase the black student population at Rutgers, sending representatives into New Jersey’s high schools to recruit.

The committee also lobbied successfully for the establishment of an Africana House and an Africana (Black) Studies Department at Douglass.

Summey says the students’ demands found a receptive ear at the all-women’s campus, perhaps because of women’s history of fighting for equity in a male-dominated society, perhaps because several academic departments – including her own sociology department – already had been agents of social change.

More than 40 years after she graduated, Summey continues to advocate for underserved populations.

Now special assistant for grants and special project development at the Rutgers-Newark Office of University-Community Partnerships, Summey helps plan outreach initiatives linking the campus to its host city. She works closely with minority youth, as she did for 31 years as director of the Douglass Educational Opportunity Fund (now the School of Arts and Sciences Educational Opportunity Fund).

Except for a brief stint as a special services adviser at Hunter College, Summey has made Rutgers her home for more three decades.

As much as her efforts as an undergraduate helped change campus culture, she believes her experience here had an equal impact on the career she chose and the woman she became.

“It was a transformative time in my life,” Summey says. “Before coming to Douglass, I never perceived myself as a leader. Those years here gave me a platform that I felt very passionate about. They gave me a lot of traction in terms of what I needed to be doing.”

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