It was in 1982 when Chancellor Melvin A. Eggers turned to his newly appointed vice president for program development, Robert Hill, and charged him to engage “the growing influence of Black Americans in society” for the benefit of Syracuse University. Thus began an extraordinary effort to locate more than five decades of alumni and invite them back to campus for what became the inaugural Coming Back Together (CBT) effort in 1983, the first official reunion of Black and Latino alumni of its kind in the nation.
When Black and Latino alumni come back together this year on Friday, October 16 th for CBT’s first virtual reunion, they will be honoring the past and their exceptional accomplishments, and discussing new ways to remain relevant and meaningful when they return to campus for a rescheduled celebration in September 2021. “We’ve worked very hard to develop a four-day weekend celebration that honors our traditions while introducing exciting new events and programming.” says Rachel Vassel ’91, assistant vice president of multicultural advancement.
Though event planning and programs have entered a new century since 1983, the lofty purpose of bringing together these alumni has not changed. The desire to create a growing network that can support, mentor and inspire Black and Latino students has persisted through the years. In a New York Times article covering the first event, Hill is quoted as saying the targeted alumni are “a sleeping giant” representing a considerable resource that could be tapped for support for university programs and to recruit students.
The Friends of Syracuse Hatch a Plan
The idea for that first CBT started to take shape when alumni from the Class of 1978–Wayne Brown, Alfreda Mayer, and Steve Edwards—got together at the Lubin House in New York City to plan for their fifth reunion. They were part of a group called The Friends of Syracuse University, successful Black and Latino alumni who live and/or work in the metro NYC area. Hill met with them after getting his directive from the Chancellor and, together with SU’s Office of Minority Affairs and Admissions Office, the vision for a reunion grew well beyond the Class of ’78 to include all classes, all schools and colleges, and undergraduate/graduate programs. Hill said it was a novel way to demonstrate that Black and Brown lives truly mattered in the home of the Orange.
Today’s students are facing many of the same issues our Black, Brown, and Orange alumni faced as students years ago. Those shared experiences across the decades—that touch three centuries—unite the students and alumni today and strengthen the students through support, mentoring, and opportunities.—Robert Hill
“I wanted to treat those treasured alumni like they really mattered,” recalls Hill. “So, we met in the Chancellor’s living room in the University’s Lubin House in New York City. The class of 1978 visionaries were joined by Friends of Syracuse President Gwynne Wilcox ’74 and Walter Braswell ’71. We planned over dinner at Tavern on the Green.” He and others mined the yearbooks—as far back as the 19 th century---looking for alumni to invite. And he found prominent alumni who agreed to be part of the invitation letterhead: Football and Hollywood legend Jim Brown ’57; public relations guru Maria Jiminez ’52; television producer Suzanne De Passe ’68; radio powerhouse Vaughn Harper ’68; basketball legend, industrialist, and later Detroit mayor Dave Bing ’66, among several generous others.
Invitations were sent to 1,600 alumni. “I set a goal to have 300 people attend the event, and we hit that goal,” says Hill. Classes from as early as 1927 were represented, and former students came from as far away as the Virgin Islands, many for their first visit back. That same weekend in 1983, Miss New York State Vanessa Williams, a Syracuse University musical theater major, won the crown of Miss America. And Suzanne De Passe won the Emmy Award for best variety show. During her acceptance speech, De Passe actually said a shout-out to Vanessa Williams and her alma mater. It truly was a weekend for the history books.
Funding Promising Futures
Since that time, CBT reunions have been held on campus every three years (skipping only one year in the cycle). Alumni and friends have contributed millions of dollars to fund Our Time Has Come (OTHC) Scholarships for Black and Latino students deserving of opportunities to attain a Syracuse degree. Thus far, the OTHC Scholarship Program has awarded nearly 1,500 scholarships. Last year more than 60 students received support, many of whom are first-generation college students. Still, only 30% of qualified applicants are awarded a scholarship, and the need for funding support is only growing.
Hill, who spent more than two decades of his higher education career at Syracuse University, recalls that at the first CBT event in 1983, the alumni talked about using their newfound strength to help talented and needy students who followed them. And they have done just that. “Today’s students are facing many of the same issues our Black, Brown, and Orange alumni faced as students years ago,” says Hill. “Those shared experiences across the decades— that touch three centuries—unite the students and alumni today and strengthen the students through support, mentoring, and opportunities.”