THE LAST BLACK GOLDEN GIRLS
Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte
Mills College Class of 1973
I am writing this on the day of the March 17 announcement about the “transition” of my alma mater, Mills College, from a degree-conferring academic institution to an as yet undefined “Mills Institute.” This declaration finally put to rest months of speculation and misinformation surrounded by years of concern about the future of the College.
This change will also mean that Mills College may hold its last commencement ceremony in 2023.
That year, 2023, holds special meaning for me and my classmates from the graduating class of 1973. It will be the year that we reach fifty years since our commencement. It will be the year in Mills’ parlance that we become “Golden Girls.” A Mills “Golden Girl” gets the royal treatment at her fiftieth reunion and it is a wonderful and joyous achievement, whether it is tethered to the institution, to us a group of amazing women, or both. To truly understand how significant that year will be for us, you have to know that the Mills class of 1973 is still thought to be the largest class of Black women in the history of the college. Gaining admission in 1969 to this prestigious all-female undergraduate institution was both a result of the Black Power Movement and our stellar grade point averages. Many of us were from Oakland and up until our acceptance and admission to the College had little or no idea what was hidden behind the ornate fences that surrounded it. The fact that we graduated, many with honors, was and is a testament to our tenacity, savvy and still quite evident, “change-maker DNA.”
In 1969 we arrived Black at a Mills College that begrudgingly welcomed us. Mills had, and has always had, a split personality. With a progressive presentation on the outside, Mills was, and is still deeply biased on the inside. My years there were filled with pride and pain and would become the subject and title of an article I wrote for the Mills Alumnae Quarterly Magazine in 2015.
I write this from the perspective of a former student who was both richly encouraged and treated with withering disdain. I write this as the first and only woman of color to be appointed as the Executive Director of the Mills College Alumnae Association, who on my first day on the job watched three white employees walk out as one of them said, “There is no way we will ever work for her.” I write this as a short-term contractor at Mills who while in a staff meeting listened as the art museum director at the time said she was taking down an African art exhibit and putting it in the basement, “...because no one wants to come here and see that crap anyway.”
The March 17 Mills College announcement cites changes in higher education, declining enrollment, and budget deficits as the reasons for its academic demise. But, as with many colleges, Mills relied heavily on the financial contributions of the “good old girl” White alumnae, many of whom have now passed away. Some of these same women can be found in the College’s yearbooks of their era in drama classes smeared in blackface, and while I was Executive Director, one of them asked me more than once if I was available to clean her house. Many of them are gone now, and when it came time to seek new funding pathways, Mills did not cultivate the alumnae of color.
Don't get me wrong here, Mills did in fact ask us for money from time to time, but they never cultivated us as a Mills affinity group. They never mixed us in their famous Mills College chocolate chip cookie dough as a part of the Mills alumnae recipe. We were never a normal course of business for Mills. Mills never connected and acted upon the changing demographics of its alumnae base and the opportunities to fundraise outside of their real inside identity. Oh yes, there was the attempt to connect in 2006 when a large meeting of Black alumnae was held. It resulted in many painful stories of ill treatment at Mills, many tears, but no meaningful follow-up. As I write this in 2021, Mills College has no Black employees in its Office of Alumnae Relations. I asked. What does that say about their internal design even today?
So, while I am saddened by the news that my alma mater will no longer exist in its present state, I also understand the inevitability of it all. Knowing no lasting progress has been made to change the closed, confusing, and "you are not really a Mills girl" culture I and others faced in 1969 and beyond, from time to time I have wondered when the doors would close.
Yes, we have come full circle, my beloved Mills College 70’s sisters. Who could have imagined that the Black women who graduated in 1973, would be among the last group of “Golden Girls” for Mills College?
And who could have imagined that here in 2021, we still have to wonder if Mills will celebrate our shining legacy?