Seersucker suits, cicada songs and makeshift paper fans: all the staples of a Southern summertime gathering were present on Sept. 4th in Harrison Square at the celebration of the first African American students at Tech.
The highlight of the celebration centered on the unveiling of the two “Trailblazers” sculptures.
“The Three Pioneers” honors Ford Greene, Ralph Long Jr. and Lawrence Williams, the first African American students at Tech, while “The First Graduate” honors Ronald Yancey, the first African American graduate from Tech.
The bronze statues are life-size replicas of the students as depicted from the early ‘60s.
The pioneering alumni were commemorated next to the “Continuing the Conversation” statue that was erected in Spring 2018, which celebrated the work of Rosa Parks.
The earlier piece depicts Parks at ages 42 and 92, with an open seat inviting students to join in the discussion of how to combat discrimination. Today the “Trailblazers” statues help to continue those conversations about diversity on campus.
The President of the African American Student Union Nandi-Assata Tavares weighed in on the importance of this historic event for the way in which it paved the path for diversity to increase within Tech’s student body.
“Without [the Trailblazers’] hard work and resilience, the black Georgia Tech community would not be where we are today,” said Tavares.
Dr. Archie W. Ervin, vice president and chief diversity officer at Georgia Tech also shared his input. For Ervin, these statues are a message about what kind of community he wants to see here at Tech: one that is more accepting of diversity and differences.
“As you look upon the statues of these four trailblazers who came here, upon this very campus in 1961, let us remember the courage and commitment that it took for them to be here,” Ervin said.
“We should be reminded to be strong as we continue to make Georgia Tech the kind of community that it should be for all members.”
Dr. Ángel Cabrera, only two days into his new position as Tech’s 12th President, thanked former President Bud Peterson for working to make these statues a possibility. Cabrera also discussed the diversity panel that was held at the Institute’s 11th Annual Diversity Symposium earlier that morning in which the trailblazing men shared their experience at Tech.
“Sometimes when change happens at the magnitude of what happened in this country, students think that change is inevitable, that it would have happened anyway,” said Cabrera.
“We should know better. It takes individuals to actually drive change. Those statues mean that to us. For what you did for this place, I, on behalf of the entire Georgia Tech community, say thank you.”
Provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs at Tech Dr. Rafael Bras cited the Korean War Veterans Memorial statues in Washington, D.C. as the inspiration for the Trailblazers design.
“Interactivity was the ultimate aim,” said Bras. “The idea behind ‘The Three Pioneers’ and ‘The First Graduate’ is that our students, faculty, staff and any visitors would be able to walk among them and be seated beside them.”
“We have come a long way since Rosa Parks started a movement that fateful day in December 1955, but not far enough. Discrimination is still alive and well, and I have seen it and I have lived it. Bigotry and exclusion have a pernicious impact on people, creating self-doubt, isolating the mind and the intellect. They are weapons of marginalization of the spirit. It takes incredible self-assurance and fortitude to survive.”
Bo Gobold, who initially conceived and funded the project along with his wife Betsy, reminded participants that this moment was one of celebration for the Tech community.
“I’ve had some people wonder why I don’t have on a dark, appropriate business suit,” Gobold said, referring to his bright yellow polka-dotted blazer. “This ain’t a funeral. This is a celebration!”
“These statues to me are permanent reminders to the campus now and in the future of what life was fifty-eight years ago, and so I would like today’s students, next year’s students, Ralph’s grandson, my grandson, to look at those someday … and continue to move forward, not backward,” Gobold said.
The statue “The Three Pioneers” is on display in Harrison Square, while “The First Graduate” is in G. Wayne Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons.