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New York, NY…, On Tuesday, May 14, 2024, Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a/k/a “The Freedom Church,” lived up its name and opened its doors to the Black Grad 24K Golden Class of Columbia University* for their commencement service. Over the last several weeks, students at Columbia University (and across the nation) have been “taking it to the streets” in protest of the Israeli-Hamas War in Gaza. As a result, and due to safety concerns, administrators at Columbia University canceled on-campus commencement services. The Black Alumni Council (BAC) at Columbia University reached out to Rev. Dr. Malcolm J. Byrd, Senior Pastor at Mother A.M.E. Zion Church and asked if the Black Grad 24K Golden Class could hold its graduation at the church. Rev. Byrd enthusiastically agreed.

Over 1100 family members, friends, and guests clapped and cheered as the 150 students of Black Grad 24k Golden Class marched through golden archways and filled the first five pews on each side of the church.  The Black Alumni Council inducted the grads who had earned degrees in law, medicine, political science, and computer science, as they walked across the front of the sanctuary and proudly announced their names. Many of the students graduated high school during the COVID pandemic and their graduation services were canceled. So, it was particularly meaningful that they were able to “walk the stage” at their college commencement service.

Opening remarks were made by Melinda Aquino, Associate Dean of Multicultural Affairs. Nadia Sharpe, Senior Chair, Class of ‘24 welcomed the grads and guests. The Black National Anthem was sung by Joshua Black (CC ‘25). Obinna Okoli (CC ‘24) and Malik Fountain (SEAS ‘24) followed with tribute performances and a vocal composition by Nkozi Jones (CC ‘24). 

The Keynote Address was given by Edwidge Danticat*, (BC ‘90) Win Tsun Mellon Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies. “How fitting it is that we are here celebrating you in this historic place where so many enslaved people found passage through the Underground Railroad, including Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass. It is in their lineage, among others, that we are here today, celebrating this huge milestone in your lives.” Her remarks were poignant and addressed many of today’s social and political issues: “Fear not, Golden Class of 2024; you are prepared for whatever lies ahead. Embrace your roles as agents of change; however, that might manifest itself in your lives. There's a well of history, beauty, poetry, and sweet company inside you. We, along with all your ancestors, stand with you.”  In closing, she said, “I want to leave you with this verse from another beloved sister, June Jordan, from a poem called "Poem for South African Women" that she presented at the United Nations in commemoration of 40,000 women and children who stood against apartheid in South Africa in the 1950s.

And who will join this standing up

and the ones who stood without sweet company

will sing and sing back into the mountains and

if necessary, even under the sea

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

Golden Class of 2024, you are the ones we have been waiting and praying for. Congratulations!”

Dr. Byrd welcomed the grads and their families to Mother Zion “in the spirit of their ancestors.” He said Mother Zion has always stood for justice and equality.  “You are graduating from this historic building because of a bequest made by Madame C.K. Walker, who was a member of this Church and the first self-made Black female millionaire.”  He told the grads that the late world-renowned Paul Robeson, who graduated from Columbia Law School in 1923, had also been a member of Mother Zion Church. “When doors were closed to Paul Robeson because of his social and political activism, the doors to Mother A.M.E. Zion Church always remained open.” Dr. Byrd asked the grads “to stand on your feet and salute your ancestors, who made it possible for you to graduate today.”

Xaelah Dionne Jarrett, Associate Director, Multicultural Affairs and Student of Color Outreach at Columbia University, and Ben Clark, Secretary of Columbia University’s Black Alumni Council along with members of the Council organized the commencement service. In her opening remarks, Ms. Jarrett thanked Rev. Byrd and Mother Zion for providing space for the service and noted that Mother Zion was the oldest Black Church in the State of New York.

In keeping with the theme, the sanctuary was decorated with gold archways and gold runners lined the aisles.  A giant 24K lighted fixture was placed in the front of the sanctuary and was the perfect centerpiece. The grads were also given gold-rimmed champagne flutes inscribed with the Black Grad 24K Golden Class insignia as mementos. The 24K grads wanted to enjoy their day and declined to be interviewed. In an expression of their POV, some grads wrapped a keffiyeh scarf, the symbol of Palestinian identity and resistance, over their gowns.

Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, and other faculty members were on hand to salute the 24K Golden Class.

It was a beautiful occasion not only for the graduates but for Mother Zion as well.  “When people ask what the Black Church is doing, I always respond, ‘it depends on where you are looking.’ Columbia University canceled its public commencement ceremony, citing security concerns. When I learned that the Black Students Association had nowhere to hold their Black graduation, the answer was very clear to me, Mother Zion!”   Rev. Byrd’s Facebook post.

When one door closes, another one opens.

*Columbia University, officially Columbia University in the City of New York, located in the Morningside Heights section in upper Manhattan, is a private, Ivy League, research university in New York City, New York, United States. Established in 1754 as King's College on the grounds of Trinity Church in Manhattan, it is the oldest institution of higher education in New York and the fifth oldest in the United States and is considered one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

* Professor Danticat is a renowned Haitian American novelist and the recipient of many awards and honors.



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