In September of 1964, a record number of Black males matriculated to Yale: 14. Along with Black upperclassmen, these freshmen launched the first Spook Weekend, a huge social weekend that brought hundreds of Black students to Yale from throughout the Northeast. The next year, these socially active students metamorphosed into the more politically conscious, Yale Discussion Group on Negro Affairs. From this fledgling organization emerged the Black Student Alliance at Yale, (BSAY), in 1967. BSAY students had four major concerns that remain the cornerstones of Black student activities to date:
- Increased Black enrollment
- The development of Afro-American Studies
- Better relations with the Black New Haven community
- An Afro-American Cultural Center
To address these concerns, Black students involved themselves with the community on the one hand, hosting Black Panthers during May Day, establishing the Urban Improvement Corps tutoring program; and on the other hand engaged Yale to see the implementation of the Afro-American Studies department in 1968 and the creation of a cultural center in the same year. In the spring of 1968 the Yale Corporation approved the establishment of a center for Black students and community members. Afro-America, a home away from home for the ever-increasing numbers of Black Yale students, and a locus for political, cultural, and social activities, opened in the fall of 1969 at 1195 Chapel Street. The name reflected the sentiment that the House (which quickly became its nickname) was more than a mere building. From its inception the Afro-American Cultural Center, which it was later renamed to, has always represented the vital and vibrant presence of African- Americans within Yale’s walls. At the same time, the location on the edge of Yale’s campus provided access to the New Haven community. In many ways, the House was a continuation of the Spook Weekends started in 1964, which brought Black students from Yale together with students from other schools in the Northeast and included speakers and discussion on issues pertinent to the black community. With the Spook Weekends, the isolation black students experienced in the late fifties and early sixties gave way to the vigorous exchange of ideas now seen at the House.
From its inception, students played a major role in the administration of the Center. Roger Collins, ‘69, acted as the first student coordinator of Afro-America. In 1970 the Center moved to its present location at 211 Park Street, where Raymond Nunn, ‘69, provided leadership as student coordinator. During Nunn’s tenure as coordinator, the Center was awarded a grant from the Cummins Foundation. By 1971, the Center had been renovated, a Board of Directors designated and rules of governance implemented. The two-year grant that had been acquired the year before helped fund travel, speakers, internships, and a student-run publication, Renaissance II*. In the next three years the Center grew, along with the number of black and female students at Yale (the class of 1971 had 25 female graduates).
After several directors between 1971 and 1974, Khalid Lum became Director of what was now officially known as the Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale. Under Lum’s leadership, the Center acquired the stability necessary to allow for a student staff to be hired and for the Center to sponsor a variety of events ranging from Black community picnics to programs aimed at forging a strong link with the New Haven community. Dr. Patricia Romney took over the reins as Director of the Center from 1979 to 1981. She continued the Center’s commitment to the social, cultural, and political events, aimed not only at providing black students with a “home away from home” but also giving the larger Yale community an opportunity to tap into a tradition which represents the Black and African imagination realized.
In the summer of 1981 Caroline Jackson ’74, a freshman at Yale in 1970 when the Afro-American Cultural Center began operations at 211 Park Street, was installed as director. Under Jackson’s leadership, the Center continued in the tradition of providing the means for “black community” to be a reality. The House flourished as Jackson and the staff raised the quality and quantity of cultural and social programming to a new level. Weekend activities expanded greatly and the yearly social scene thrived, anchored by highly successful cabaret weekends. The artistic life of Yale and New Haven was deeply enriched by the Center’s collaboration in the partnership between Lloyd Richards, Dean of the Drama School, and the playwright August Wilson.
Melvin Wade served as director of the Center from 1989 to 1991, a period of continued growth and achievement, particularly with respect to community-wide events. Melvin Wade was replaced at the helm of the House by Assistant Dean of Yale College, Kim Goff-Crews ’83, LAW ‘89. Under her leadership, from 1992 to 1998, the role of Assistant Dean became a new role and essentially a dual position for the director of the cultural center. Goff-Crews worked diligently to improve retention rates of Black students in the sciences with her creation of STARS (Science, Technology and Research Scholars Program.) During Goff-Crews’ tenure, BSAY also began the Black Solidarity Conference in 1995. From 1998-1999, Frank Mitchell served as interim director while the assistant dean position remained vacant.
In the summer of 1999, Pamela Y. George succeeded the interim director to become the director of the Afro-American Cultural Center until 2010, when she moved to the Dean’s office to continue her work with the Execute Committee and Transfer Students’ Affairs. Like Goff-Crews, George was an Assistant Dean of Yale College where she served as a freshman and sophomore academic advisor and directs science research programs as well as the Freshman Ethnic Counselor Program and a named fellowship at the Women’s Center. George quickly rejuvenated the Black community and the quality and quantity of programs offered through the Center by collaborating with many organizations and departments throughout Yale and New Haven. The Urban Improvement Corp, (UIC), which closed earlier in 1998, was reopened under her guidance, and George expanded the student staff to include graduate student assistants and twelve undergraduate staff from diverse backgrounds. She worked with the 25 student and New Haven community groups associated with the House to broaden the scope of programming and better serve the diverse group of Black, West Indian, African, mixed-race and LGBT students as well as New Haven youth with four new initiatives that support child and adolescent growth and development.
In 2004, after hosting the largest to-date gathering of Yale Black alumni on campus during the 35th Anniversary of the Afro-American Cultural Center with almost 400 attendees, Dean George began the process of renovation. With a small assembly of alumni volunteers, she supervised the restoration of the House’s facade and has helped to raise/garner/steward almost four million dollars for interior renovations and leadership development programs, most notably is an endowment for the House that has been created by alumni Woody Brittain ‘70, Craig Foster ‘69 and Ralph Dawson ‘71 in memory of three of the principle founders of the House and African American Studies: Donald Ogilvie, ‘68, Armstead Robinson ‘69 and Glen DeChabert ‘70. In October 2009, the Afro-American Cultural center celebrated 40 years with a weekend of discussion, recognition, and celebration. Hundreds of alumni and students came to attend the weekend’s events.
Dr. Rodney T. Cohen began directing the House in 2010. His philosophy hinged on the idea that the Center should not only provide a social space, but also be a think thank and challenge students to become better citizens, social advocates, scholars and stewards of the Afro Am legacy in American higher education. Dean Cohen introduced a number of new programs and increased outreach to the African student/alumni community – which helped to establish Diaspora collaborations and created a footprint in Ghana and W. Africa. He also expanded the Black Solidarity Conference; increased social media presence and outreach; increased resident/student group offerings; instituted a grants and fellowships program; fostered the establishment of an African Youth empowerment conference (Sankofa 54) and expanded the Yale university-wide M.L.K. holiday commemoration.
In 2010, a new chapter of the Afro-American Cultural Center began under the leadership of Risë Nelson. Dean Nelson has since orchestrated a renaissance at the House by reinvigorating community building efforts, increasing programming and student engagement through strategic initiatives and student success programs, and championing student wellness and social justice efforts.
As we approach 50 years we are proud of the legacy that has taken us from beneficiaries to benefactors. The common thread that runs throughout is the commitment, confidence, competence, and consciousness that students, faculty, New Haven community and the University administration have shown in making the Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale an institution vitally essential to Yale, New Haven, and beyond.