Garnet Douglass Baltimore Accepted Students Dinner
Thank you, Dr. Hajela.
Welcome, everyone, to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. We are delighted that you are here.
Let me begin by offering my congratulations to the parents and guardians who have raised the remarkable and accomplished young men and women in whose honor we hold this event.
I extend my heartfelt congratulations, also, to you, our accepted students. You stood out among applicants for your excellent academic records, and for your achievements beyond the classroom—in community service, athletics, the arts, and a myriad of other creative and self-driven ventures.
Your many and varied accomplishments signaled to us that you possess not only the degree of talent that has distinguished Rensselaer alumni and alumnae for almost two centuries. Your accomplishments tell us, as well, that you possess the same energetic, restless spirit that has driven so many Rensselaer people to change to the world.
Allow me to say a few words about another distinguished alumnus and—as it happens—an energetic, restless spirit—Garnet Douglass Baltimore—of the Rensselaer Class of 1881, the man for whom our dinner this evening is named.
Garnet Douglass Baltimore was the first African American to receive a bachelor’s degree from Rensselaer. His achievements are many and varied. He was a distinguished civil engineer, renowned land surveyor, gifted landscape architect, and beloved son of his hometown Troy, New York—which, you already may have gathered, is a beautiful, historic city now undergoing a delightful renaissance, propelled in good measure by the talent emanating from Rensselaer.
Mr. Baltimore’s grandfather, Samuel Baltimore, was a slave who fought during the Revolutionary War. Samuel’s master had promised him his freedom in exchange for his service in the war. When his master failed to honor this agreement, Samuel escaped and fled north. He settled in Troy, New York.
Samuel’s son, and Garnet’s father, Peter Baltimore owned a Troy barbershop—or in the loftier language of the 19th century, “a high-class tonsorial resort.” Peter was a brilliant man, and this was a gathering place for serious conversation among prominent citizens of all races—natives of Troy, as well as visiting intellectuals. Much of the conversation centered on the great anomaly of American life: the fact that African Americans were still, in the most democratic nation on Earth, enslaved in the Southern states. Peter Baltimore’s establishment also was a discreet hub for the Underground Railroad.
The city of Troy itself, which had a thriving African American community, was a great center of the abolitionist movement. Between 1841 and 1872, Troy hosted a number of “colored citizens” conventions, at which African Americans and their supporters gathered to strategize about achieving greater justice.
One frequent visitor to Troy during this period—and a regular guest at Peter Baltimore’s home—was Frederick Douglass, a leading figure of the abolitionist movement, who, like Samuel Baltimore, had escaped from slavery.
In his autobiography titled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Mr. Douglass describes a question that troubled him as a child, and which inspired him to devote his life to the fight against the injustice of slavery. He wrote…
I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. A want of information concerning my age was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood…. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit.
This restless spirit would infuse the magnificent speeches that the oratorically gifted Mr. Douglass was known for, such as one he delivered at the 1855 Colored Men’s Convention in Troy, where he warned that the North could not ignore slavery in the South. In his words…
A man cannot build his mansion on a hill-top, be it ever so fair and lovely, if its base be reeking with nuisance and corruption, without suffering the baneful influences of that deadly corruption. You at the North cannot suffer this dark enormity to be perpetrated, without suffering the consequences.
Other important—and similarly impassioned—leaders of the anti-slavery movement would also come to Troy. Among them were the courageous abolitionist Harriett Tubman, the African American mathematician Charles Reason, and Henry Highland Garnet, a pastor first in Troy, and then in Washington, DC, and the first African American to deliver a sermon in the White House.
Garnet Douglass Baltimore was named for his father’s friends Henry Highland Garnet and Frederick Douglass. Yet the young Mr. Baltimore would not follow in their footsteps and wade into the raging political waters of the day. Instead, he forged his own path and pursued a formal education; he would be the first in his family to go to college.
Mr. Baltimore enrolled in Civil Engineering at Rensselaer. And he was—needless to say—wise in his choice, since from its founding Rensselaer offered a style of teaching and learning that would overturn traditional methods, which had students passively listening to the lectures of their professors. Rensselaer students were among the first in the world to conduct their own laboratory experiments, to receive organized instruction in field work, to move to the front of the classroom to present their findings to their fellow students and professors, and to be judged not on a command of facts, but on their ability to apply their knowledge.
From our very beginnings, we have educated intellectually agile people—explorers, discoverers, innovators, and inventors. Garnet Douglass Baltimore was no exception.
As an engineer, he helped to shape a young, dynamic nation by working on the design and construction of bridges, railroads, roads, and waterways. His engineering talents and leadership would propel him into important roles on some of the largest and highest-profile construction projects of the day.
He was a key contributor to the building of the Erie Canal, which advanced the commerce and communications of the times in much the same way that the Internet has advanced commerce and communications in current times. The Erie Canal was a marvel of its day, and Mr. Baltimore’s contributions earned him a reputation as one of the most renowned surveyors in the region.
In 1884, he oversaw the extension of the Oswego Canal lock known as the “mud lock.” Confronted with quicksand on the site that allowed bearing piles 20 feet long to float out of place, he solved the problem, in part, by developing a new system to test cement. The system was such a significant innovation that its use was adopted as a standard for the State of New York.
In 1903, Garnet Douglass Baltimore—at approximately the age Frederick Douglass was, when he spoke in Troy a half a century earlier of mansions on fair and lovely hilltops built upon the corruption of slavery—would be named the lead landscape architect of Prospect Park, at the edge of our campus, which sits atop Mount Ida, the highest peak in Troy. Baltimore toured the great parks of the age, including Central Park in New York City, and wisely concluded that “It is a law of nature… that satisfying beauty springs from fitness or adaptation to purpose, much more surely and directly than from added ornament or the most careful imitation.”
Baltimore’s purpose was simple: As he put it, “the refreshment of the bodies and souls of great numbers of people.” This hilltop would rest on a foundation of knowledge, generosity, and tolerance. Indeed, Prospect Park remains one of the greatest assets of Troy.
For almost 200 years, Rensselaer has educated leading engineers, scientists, architects, artists, designers, managers, and innovators. A true Rensselaer alumnus, Garnet Douglass Baltimore, one could argue, was all of the above.
We will educate you for that same intellectual agility—and for multicultural sophistication, with a global view. Today, we are reshaping Rensselaer as a great crossroads for talented people from all disciplines, sectors, walks-of-life, geographies, and generations—who collaborate to address the greatest of challenges, using the most advanced of technologies. We call this vision “The New Polytechnic.”
If you join us at The New Polytechnic, you will be encouraged to use your talents in ways that open up new avenues of discovery and innovation. You will be engaged immediately in the greatest of challenges—that will challenge you and inspire you—and stir within you a restless pursuit of new perspectives, new ideas, new answers.
As you know, our motto is, “Why not change the world?” If you join us, you will be given the tools and the opportunities to do just that.
I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening and the day tomorrow. Thank you for coming!