In 1853, Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett became the first African American student to graduate from CCSU, then known as the New Britain Normal School. He went on to become a well-respected educator, a prominent leader in the abolitionist movement, and the country’s first African American Diplomatic Minister/Ambassador to Haiti.
Despite his remarkable accomplishments, up until very recently, Bassett’s name was unknown to most. That’s about to change now that the CSCU Board of Regents has approved a proposal to name CCSU’s Social Sciences building after Bassett.
It is no exaggeration that the efforts of one man, William Fothergill, an associate counselor at CCSU’s Student Wellness Services, played an integral role in bringing Bassett into the spotlight.
Fothergill’s creation of the Bassett Memorial Project began when, years ago, as an “independent historian,” he stumbled upon “the man of many firsts.” Fothergill was so impressed by the virtues he felt Bassett’s life exemplified, he designated him as the symbol of the Man Enough Support Initiative, a CCSU program he created in 2008.
Fothergill says, “We wanted to take out of the shadows that college men were these rowdy people you saw on “Animal House” and showcase men doing wonderful, positive things we weren’t talking about. Bassett became the ideal of what we call our character virtues: Brotherhood, humility, wisdom, integrity, and spirituality.”
Man Enough grew into an annual, university-wide student achievement awards ceremony, which, since 2010 has recognized nearly 200 students for demonstrating Bassett’s character and virtues.
Fothergill saw himself and others at Central as torchbearers to keep Bassett’s legacy alive. In 2014, he formed the Bassett Memorialization Committee, made up of students, faculty, and community partners, and adopted a five-year plan with five goals. Among the goals was to pursue the naming of a CCSU academic building after Bassett. The committee made a proposal to then-President Jack Miller and looked at several options, initially Davidson Courtyard.
“It’s a beautiful, historical site. But it’s a seasonal place and wouldn’t afford the opportunity to do programs year-round,” Fothergill explains. “The Social Science Hall is one of our newer buildings and had no specific name, and the social sciences all reflect Bassett and embody everything we’re talking about.”
He adds, “It was a perfect storm, in a good way that (CSCU) President Ojakian and (CCSU) President Toro, as soon as she became president in 2017, were so onboard and supportive of the project,” Fothergill says.
But then everything stalled.
“We submitted a proposal for official approval and then we just waited, and waited with no response,” he says.
Community comes together
Meanwhile, the project’s community partners started speaking up and demanding answers. They held a meeting last October at New Britain’s Spottswood AME Zion Church, Among the partners Fothergill names as major players in moving the project forward are New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart; Dayna Snell, facilitator of the Friends of Bassett monthly community meetings; and Rev. Thomas Mills of New Britain’s Grace Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
Mills learned of the mission to name a CCSU building after Bassett a few years ago when one of his church members brought it to his attention. But he only connected with Fothergill in late October and says, “Now we’re like brothers.”
He’s pleased that the timing of the approval coincides with the 150-year anniversary of Bassett’s appointment as a U.S. ambassador to Haiti.
“I think it’s wonderful he now gets this recognition,” Mills says. “There are a lot of unsung heroes. It’s important to lift up those in African American and Latino communities because they serve as such good examples of what can result from persistence and the desire to do better and be better.”
Fothergill stresses that the Bassett Memorial Project that began at CCSU is the only formal body doing the work of promoting and sustaining Bassett’s legacy.
“No one else on the planet is organizing and mobilizing anything around Bassett,” he says. “Which is why we’ve been able to galvanize U.S. diplomat Christopher Teal and connect with Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, the first institution of higher learning for African Americans, where Bassett was hired as principal.”
Mills notes, “This is a wonderful opportunity for CCSU and may be the first time a building on a state-funded public institution of higher learning has been named for an African American. New Britain can be proud of the fact that this happened here.”
A community-wide celebration and the unveiling of the Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett Social Sciences Hall will be held on March 20.