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May 23, 2017

Harvard Law School graduate Derecka Purnell carried her son across the stage at Harvard's first university-wide graduation ceremony for black students. (WGBH/Kirk Carapezza)

Students at Harvard on Tuesday held the first university-wide graduation ceremony for black students. The student-organized event comes as Harvard and other universities are grappling with their ties to slavery.

Under a blue sky, in front of the ionic columns of Harvard's Law Library, more than 200 students crossed the stage one by one.

Newly-minted law graduate Derecka Purnell of St. Louis carried her three-year-old son as a dean draped her with African kente cloth.

"There's not a whole lot of opportunity for students generally to come together at Harvard because it's such a huge school,” Purnell said shortly before the ceremony began. “Most of the school is sort of run independently and autonomously, so to have the one time where everyone is coming together be the end of the year is a very exciting moment."

Purnell has been active in the Reclaim Harvard Law School movement, which last year convinced the school to change its shield modeled on the family crest of a slaveholder and to create a space in the student lounge, which activists dubbed Belinda Hall after a former slave, so students and staff could meet and talk about what it's like attending an institution where less than seven percent of students are black.

“I don't think [the black commencement] is directly related to Belinda Hall organizing but I think it is part of the broader attempt for marginalized students to sort of create space in a place where often I don't feel like there is space for us on campus," Purnell said.

During the ceremonies, speakers talked about what it's like to be black at Harvard in 2017.

"Outside of these ivy-laced walls, and outside of this Harvard bubble, Rome is burning," Harvard Business School graduate Terrance Rogers told graduates, urging them to speak for those who don't have the privilege to attend Harvard.

Harvard Business School graduate Terrance Rogers addresses African American students at Harvard's first university-wide graduation ceremony for black students. (WGBH/Kirk Carapezza)

"The little girl in Michigan with lead in her water needs our voice,” Rogers said. “The young mother in South Africa without healthcare needs our voice. And the little black boy in Oakland, California, just moments away from Silicon Valley, but without the resources to grasp that opportunity needs our voice."

Such commencement ceremonies aren't new. In fact, hundreds of universities host special graduation events for under-represented groups.

The trend began in the 1960s during the civil rights movement and became popular again in the late '90's. In prior years, black graduation ceremonies at Harvard took place within individual schools and departments. This year's was the first university-wide ceremony.

Related: How Should Colleges Acknowledge And Memorialize Their Ties To Slavery?

Some have criticized the ceremonies as reinforcing racial divisions, but Michelle Williams, dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, doesn't see it that way.

"I see this as an opportunity to recognize the historical moments that these graduates and their families have achieved and accomplished as a group that have been denied opportunities for so many centuries in this country," Williams said before participating in the ceremony.

Williams says a university-wide black commencement is long overdue and timely in today's heated racial and political climate.

"This comes at a time when young people of different persuasions are feeling a bit threatened, and here is an opportunity to assert their identity and to be part of something special as a group of African American students graduating from Harvard."

While the black commencement was hosted on campus, a school spokesperson told WGBH News that it was entirely organized and paid for by students.

And those student organizers stress that the ceremony is not a protest or a replacement for the university's formal graduation event this Thursday.

WGBH News intern Tomo Singh Jr. contributed to this report. 

Earlier: Harvard President Calls On Institution To Recognize Ties To Slavery

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