Seahawk basketball star was a pioneer in developing the field of Black & African Studies in American higher education.
Milfred Fierce ’60 M’67 has always been in the middle of everything.
As a Wagner College student athlete, he was “one of the best basketball players in Seahawk history,” according to his hall of fame induction citation. “Possibly the greatest defensive player in Wagner basketball history, Fierce was captain of the Seahawks in each of his last two years.”
Fierce graduated in 1960 with a major in economics — but his future was in education.
For several years Fierce taught at Junior High School 35 in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, a mile and a half from his family home in Crown Heights. He earned his master’s degree in education from Wagner in 1967, which qualified him for positions of greater responsibility in the New York City public school system.
That same year, nearby Brownsville was the site of an experiment in establishing local control over a predominantly Black community’s public schools. A months-long teachers’ strike at Junior High School 271 in the fall of 1968 to protest the shift led Fierce to join the school’s staff as a combination guidance counselor, Black history teacher and assistant principal.
It was at J.H.S. 271 that Poughkeepsie’s Vassar College found Milfred Fierce in the winter of 1969. Black students at the prestigious women’s school, one of the Seven Sisters, were working with college administrators to create a new Black studies program.
“When the Brooklyn native was first contacted,” wrote Wagner communications director Brian Morris ’65 for a 1970 profile in this magazine, “he was impressed but not interested.
“The second time the Vassar students knocked on his door, Fierce was ready.”
According to Morris, Fierce was “a man whose philosophy is to ‘go anywhere on earth, do anything, to serve the black people in their struggle.’ ”
In July 1969, Fierce became the first director of Vassar’s Urban Center for Black Studies — one of the only such programs then in existence, started just one year after the first Black Studies department was created at San Francisco State College.
“He is teacher, administrator, director of the urban center, chairman of the black studies department,” Morris wrote, “and ‘sort of unofficial counselor to the community.’ ”
The community angle was a central feature of the Urban Center.
“The type of program we are trying to develop here is truly a pioneer program,” Fierce told Wagner Magazine in 1970, “the idea of an urban center for study located at the grass roots. It was the students who advanced that the center should be located in the heart of the black community,” some two miles from the Vassar campus.
Most of those Black students lived together in a house on campus, Kendrick House, where Fierce and his wife were “house fellows,” or dorm parents, according to Claudia Lynn Thomas, who was president of the college’s Students’ Afro-American Society. They were happy that the Black Studies program had been started — but unhappy that they still could not major in the field.
Following unsuccessful negotiations with the administration in October 1969, a group of 34 SAS members staged a well-organized, peaceful takeover of Vassar’s Main Building. The college responded constructively, agreeing to strengthen the Black Studies program so that students could earn their degrees in the field — and the strike ended.
“The Black studies program at Vassar College became a model for colleges around the nation,” Claudia Lynn Thomas wrote in 2006. “Its faculty included prominent scholars, and Milfred C. Fierce directed the program with a style unique to his sincerity, candor and expectations of students.”
Milfred Fierce continued in the field of Black and Africana Studies for the rest of his career. He earned his Ph.D. from Columbia while teaching at Hunter College in the 1970s. Later, he invested nearly two decades in the Africana Studies program at Brooklyn College, retiring in 1999 as chairman.
“Africana Studies has the bold and imposing task of educating a relatively uninformed academic community and wider world about the monumental contributions of Africans and people of African descent throughout the annals of human history,” Fierce wrote in a 1991 monologue for Cornell University.
“Africana Studies has the capacity to breathe fresh air into the social sciences and humanities,” he wrote, emphasizing the significance of the field for the entire academy. “When the frontiers of our knowledge of human understanding and potential are advanced, there are no losers.”
All the while, Fierce has maintained his connection to his alma mater, including service on the Wagner College Board of Trustees in the 2000s. That position — as well as his experience at Vassar — gave him a unique perspective when he participated in a 2010 alumni symposium on the 1970 occupation of Cunard Hall by Wagner’s Black and Brown students.
We are proud to spotlight Milfred C. Fierce, Ph.D., as a Wagner History Maker.