At a time when Columbia University is confronting its historic relationship with slavery, and as we are also nearing the end of Black History Month, it seems fitting to acknowledge the passing of one of Harlem’s leading civil rights activists, Cyril deGrasse Tyson. He attended the School of Social Work from 1953 to 1954, and dedicated his life to the empowerment of disenfranchised populations. He passed away on December 29, 2016, at the age of 89.

Mr. Tyson was born in New York City in 1927 to immigrant parents from the Caribbean. After earning his BA from St. Francis College in Brooklyn, where he was also a world-class athlete on the track team, he came to Columbia to study for a master’s in social work, ultimately taking a degree from Teachers College.

Mr. Tyson entered the social services field in the 1960s—an era of unrest and extreme poverty in cities across the country. He worked for several agencies in New York City that empowered afflicted communities, including the New York City Commission on Intergroup Relations and the Commission on Human Rights. In 1963, he joined Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited—known colloquially as “Haryou”—a federally-funded program that helped lift local youth out of poverty through education and job-training.

Mr. Tyson’s role at Haryou led him to subsequent leadership positions at the United Community Corporation in Newark, the New York City Human Resources Administration, and the New York Manpower and Career Development Agency. Whether working within or outside of the government, he was a determined and effective anti-poverty activist, creating and implementing programs that led thousands to employment.

He was the author of several books, a co-founder of One Hundred Black Men Inc., part of the first class of fellows at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, vice president of public and community affairs at City College of New York, a veteran of World War II, and much more.

Mr. Tyson was remembered by his friend David Dinkins, the former mayor of New York City and a professor of professional practice at SIPA, as someone who “brought hope and opportunity to those who had been disenfranchised from the American Dream for decades.” He was remembered on Twitter by his son, the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, as an “Athelete, Educator, Civil Rights Activist, Public Servant, Dad”.

Throughout his life, Mr. Tyson was a credit to Columbia and a role model for the values of the social work profession.


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