Ebenezer Bassett was the first African American to graduate from the college now known as Central Connecticut State University. Then, in 1869, he became the first African American to serve as a U.S. diplomat.
Now 150 years after that appointment by President Ulysses S. Grant, CCSU has renamed its Social Sciences Hall in honor of Bassett — a recognition that comes with another historic first, university officials said this week.
The university committee that pushed to memorialize Bassett declared this was the first time a public university in Connecticut would have an academic building named in honor of an African American.
“The first!” committee chairman William Fothergill said at a ceremony Wednesday in the newly named Ebenezer D. Bassett Hall on the New Britain campus.
“Not a dorm … Not a center,” Fothergill continued. “But an academic building of scholarly learning. We’re the first!”
Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities system, said he found it unacceptable that in 2019, there was this kind of “first.”
“Today’s dedication is much more than the renaming of a building,” said Ojakian, who oversees 17 state colleges and universities, including CCSU in New Britain. “It’s a new chapter in ensuring that men and women of color who have for far too long been institutionally overlooked, are recognized as the community leaders they have been, they are and they will continue to be in the future.”
The University of Connecticut was included in the committee’s research, Fothergill said. A spokesperson for UConn said Thursday that she was unaware of any of its academic buildings being named for an African American. One of UConn’s residential complexes, Busby Suites, is named in honor of Alan Thacker Busby, UConn’s first black student.
Ojakian told Connecticut Public Radio that the Board of Regents for the state colleges and universities system is now reviewing its policy on naming buildings.
“A lot of naming opportunities exist for people who give large sums of money, and institutions need revenue in order to continue to operate,” Ojakian said. “But that shouldn’t be the only criteria. And we should look at celebrating the lives of people who made a difference, and especially people of color.”
Bassett was an educator, abolitionist and a U.S. diplomat to Haiti before his death in 1908.
“The naming of Ebenezer D. Bassett Hall symbolizes the quest for inclusion,” said Fothergill, a counselor at CCSU’s Student Wellness Center who pushed for years to get the dedication approved. “Ebenezer descended from proud, strong and courageous African and indigenous people. ...He was a survivor. A servant. He was a leader.”
By recognizing Bassett with an academic building, Fothergill said, “we are now, finally, included.”
The decade-long effort to honor Bassett is having a ripple effect. Western Connecticut State University is in the process of naming its School of Visual and Performing Arts after the legendary African American singer Marian Anderson, Ojakian said.