Hortense Parker Day, one of Mount Holyoke’s newer traditions, was founded in 2009 by Ahyoung An ’09 and Camila Curtis-Contreras ’09. The event was created to “raise awareness in the College community of the history and the achievements of women of color at Mount Holyoke, and to celebrate women of color at Mount Holyoke—past, present, and future.”
This important event is named after Hortense Parker, Mount Holyoke’s first African American alumna, who graduated in 1883, less than two decades after slavery was abolished in the United States. Although officials were unaware that Parker was African American until she arrived on campus in 1878, she was allowed to enroll in classes and live on campus despite the segregationist practices of the time. While at Mount Holyoke, Parker was known on campus for her musical ability, and was frequently asked to play the piano for students and faculty.
The first annual Hortense Parker celebration was held in April of 2009, and included a song performed by three of Mount Holyoke’s a cappella groups, a screening and discussion of Experienced Diversity, by Ahyoung An ’09 and Camila Curtis-Contreras ’09, and a keynote address by Barbara Smith ’69. The founders hoped this event would help launch discussions around “work that can be done in the future to strengthen the College’s commitment to diversity.”
Each year the celebration grows and evolves, with a unifying theme connecting the festivities, such as Deep Roots and Still Growing, Pathways: My Journey from Here to There, and Remembering the Past, Engaging in the Present, Transforming your Future. Keynote speakers include alumnae, educators, authors, and community leaders, who help frame the conversation around race and identity. Many of the celebrations have included a community art project which helps members of the Mount Holyoke community reflect on the impact of women of color on their lives and their own journeys. In 2011, an annual essay contest was launched, and the winners share their essays relating to the celebration’s theme as part of the event. Though Hortense Parker Day has traditionally been celebrated in the spring, this past year the event was moved to the fall, allowing the important conversations around race and identity to frame the campus conversation from the start of the year.