Black Alumni at MIT (BAMIT) held a special conference over the Columbus Day weekend celebrating its 25th anniversary as an organization.
"Great Accomplishments, Great Expectations" looked at the impact of black alumni over the past century and included a special tribute to astronaut Ronald McNair (Ph.D. 1977) who died in the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. McNair's brother, Carl McNair, paid tribute to him in an event at Walker Memorial.
Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, delivered the keynote address, evoking the legacy of McNair during the gala at the MIT Museum. The crowd gave her a standing ovation.
"The tribute to Ron McNair really captured the essence of this conference," said BAMIT president Chiquita White (S.B. 1985). "He was a risk taker, a pioneer, and a champion of following one's dream to reach an important goal. Those characteristics are what BAMIT is about in many ways."
More than 135 people attend the conference, which featured four keynote speakers: Jackson (S.M. 1968, Ph.D. 1973); Chancellor Phillip Clay (Ph.D. 1975); Woodrow Whitlow (S.B. 1974, S.M. 1975, Ph.D. 1979), deputy director of the NASA Kennedy Space Center; and James Gates (S.B. 1973, Ph.D. 1977), a professor of physics at the University of Maryland.
"Listening to the four keynote speakers was a special moment for many members," said White. "These four alumni were contemporaries at the Institute and took significant personal risk to raise awareness of key issues facing minority students at MIT."
White said she was approached by a number of attendees who want to establish BAMIT chapters in their own areas. "A number of attendees said this was their first visit back [to campus] in 20 years," she said.
"It was great to see old friends reconnect," said Robert Hillman (S.B. 1987). "But the best moments were the interactions between current students and alumni." Hillman said the usually unflappable Gates was taken aback by an autograph request from a current student. "I don't know if he realizes how inspiring he is to today's students. These speakers are important role models to this generation."
"This was a special event in many ways," said Beth Garvin, executive vice president and CEO of the MIT Alumni Association. "This conference memorialized important historical accomplishments of MIT's black alumni. It was inspiring."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 20, 2004 (download PDF).