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Family in Focus

Black alumni leave a lasting legacy on Swarthmore’s campus and culture

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT ’66, H’89 attended Swarthmore at a time just before the institution made its first serious commitments to diversity and inclusion.

She recalls a campus with no Black professors and a Black student population that could be counted on one hand. A place where her freshman roommate had received a letter asking if she’d mind rooming with a “Negro.”

“Tokenism is distorting, the paradoxical experience of being both hyper-visible and invisible,” says Lawrence-Lightfoot, the Emily Hargroves Fisher Research Professor of Education at Harvard University. “Although I made close friendships and felt deeply embedded in the Swarthmore community, there was always this nagging feeling of loneliness, isolation, and marginalization. My involvement in the civil rights and social justice movements—both on and off campus—was central to my education, identity, and sense of belonging.”

Lawrence-Lightfoot’s sentiments get to the core of the institution-altering events of 1969, which called for an increase in Black admissions and creation of a Black Cultural Center at Swarthmore. The paths forged by activist groups of the late ’60s—and by Black students like Lawrence-Lightfoot who came even earlier—cleared the way for younger family members and others to experience a more inclusive Swarthmore. Over the past 50 years, Black family connections have grown and continue to be nurtured at Swarthmore.

Those relationships have rippled out, inspiring legacy and community.

An important solace for Lawrence-Lightfoot as she navigated her education was the presence on campus of her sister Paula Lawrence-Wehmiller ’67, who followed her older sibling to Swarthmore at the encouragement of their parents, Charles Radford Lawrence II and Margaret Morgan Lawrence H’03. The elder Lawrences were devoted civil rights and peace activists.

Growing up, Lawrence-Wehmiller says, family stories centered on Black people who were committed to education and who were deeply rooted in the struggle for justice.

Their home was a hub and haven for humanists, activists, and artists—leaders and luminaries of the time, like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Dr. John Hope Franklin, Dr. Kenneth Clark, A.J. Muste, and Philip and Dan Berrigan, Sara and Paula say about the home they grew up in. The family was active in local, national, and international movements. “We all marched, picketed, and raised our voices for social justice and peace,” says Lawrence-Wehmiller.

The Lawrence sisters’ 105-year-old mother, Dr. Margaret Lawrence, was the first Black psychoanalyst trained in the United States, served as Chief of the Developmental Psychiatry Service for Children at Harlem Hospital, and became Professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The sisters also made names for themselves: Lawrence-Lightfoot as winner of a 1984 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and the first African-American woman in Harvard’s history to have an endowed professorship named in her honor, and Lawrence-Wehmiller as an educator, Episcopal priest, and consultant to communities of faith, learning, and service.

Lawrence-Lightfoot and Lawrence-Wehmiller have remained connected to Swarthmore, serving in various advisory capacities since their graduations. Paula and her husband, John Wehmiller ’66, have been major supporters and mentors of the Chester Children’s Chorus for most of its 25 years. Sara served on the Board of Managers, received an honorary degree in 1989, and in 1993 the Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot endowed professorship was established at the College. Their mother’s 2003 honorary degree further deepened the family’s ties to the College.

The choice to go to Swarthmore reflected their parents’ dedication to education, Lawrence-Wehmiller says.

“But it was their having raised us in the ways of justice and peace that were the gifts that my sister, Sara and I brought with us when we came to Swarthmore,” she says. “The stories we had learned, and the stories we had lived, sustained us at this place that at the time did not have the capacity to acknowledge the struggle.”

Having her sister at Swarthmore (and their brother Charles Lawrence one year ahead at Haverford) was a constant reminder that “our parents had raised us to know both the strength and the joy in the struggle—a gift I believe Sara and I passed on to the Black students who came after us.” Black alumni of the late 60s recall “the Lawrence sisters” who went before them and on whose shoulders they stood.

As the number of Black Swarthmore legacy families has grown over the past five decades, the Black Cultural Center has become a touchstone that connects generations. Such has been the experience of singer-songwriter Cecily Bumbray ’12 and her mother, Sherry Bellamy ’74, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C., law office of Parker Poe.

Bellamy’s class, admitted in 1970, was the first with a relatively sizable Black student population of 20 men and 20 women.

“My mom’s experience as a Black student on campus was really a unique one, because it was a time of a lot of change,” Bumbray says. “When I came along, the strong community was something that was really attractive to me—having the Black Cultural Center, a place to get together to laugh and do homework and volunteer work. I feel really blessed that my mom was part of that effort to have a strong community at Swarthmore that I could eventually benefit from.”

The values that Swarthmore helped to instill, says Bellamy, are ones of liberal thinking, acceptance of everybody, and “being a lot less judgmental.”

“One thing that was great about Cecily and I having Swarthmore in common was her first reaction when she first visited Swarthmore: ‘I don’t know, Mom. I’m not a big a nerd as you are. I might not like it,’” Bellamy says. “Then she spent a weekend and she loved it.”

Swarthmore, to Bellamy, was an open, diverse, and comfortable place. The BCC especially was a “home away from home.”

“Whenever I felt overwhelmed by the Swarthmore environment, or just needed a place to be, that’s where I went,” she says. “I can’t imagine having spent my four years there without the BCC. We needed that space to re-energize and regroup and be together.”

For Delvin Dinkins ’93 and Davirah Timm-Dinkins ’93, who met outside Sharples as freshmen and later married, being a Swarthmore family has meant carrying values learned at the College on to other institutions. Davirah has worked at Penn State and elsewhere on student support and faculty relations surrounding multicultural issues, while Delvin has held leadership roles at private and public K–12 schools.

“At Swarthmore, I was fortunate to have a lot of great mentors who played a role in my increasingly deep interest in education—people who gave me a sense of how dynamic and honorable a profession it could be,” Delvin says. “They really played a part in awakening me to not just opportunities, but also a lot of the work that education has to do, in terms of the social mission.”

Their daughter, Bria Dinkins ’21, chose to attend Swarthmore as well, sealing their fate as a legacy family. Like her parents before her, Bria has been active with the Swarthmore African-American Student Society, serving on the executive board. Though they’ve been careful not to give their daughter too much advice about navigating college life, trusting her to find her own way, the elder Dinkinses sometimes observe in Bria’s campus life both a reflection and a carrying-forward of their own earlier Swarthmore stories.

“When she shares the experiences she’s had with people, or challenges, we listen to them with an open mind, but we also can relate,” Davirah says. “While some are specific to this time and her journey, some are universal. What matters is, at Swarthmore, you can find your own experience, however it looks. That’s the beauty of it—that you are around people as engaged and passionate as you are, and at the same time, there’s support from students, from faculty, and from staff.”