In the 1960s, universities became centers of protest, anger, dissent and change. Students were called upon to fight an unpopular war in Vietnam, and colleges suddenly needed to adapt to an increasingly diverse student body. At Cornell in particular, the generally homogeneous student body received a boost in diversity and challenged what the University needed to be teaching.
The administration at Cornell created the Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC) after a period of violence and protest that received national media attention. The black students felt the University was not addressing their needs for a well-rounded, appropriate education. Miscommunication between the administration and student groups, combined with racial tension on campus, led a group of armed black students to take over the Straight on April 19, 1969.
“The student movement at Cornell really reflected the social characteristics of the time,” said Prof. James Turner, founder and director of graduate studies for Africana. “Universities and colleges could make a contribution by becoming a model for social change.”
According to Turner, universities actively began recruiting African-American students and, to a lesser extent, Latino students. Once the students arrived on campus, they began to question the quality of life and education being offered to them. “Many instructors had little to no real knowledge of African-American history and culture,” Turner said.
Former Cornell President James Perkins began an aggressive recruiting strategy and founded an initiative called the Committee on Special Education and Projects (COSEP).
“They had succeeded in recruiting some great minority students,” said Prof. Walter LaFeber, the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor. “But they didn’t understand the needs and demands of the students.”
The University had agreed to build the Africana Center in 1968, before the student protests, and Turner officially became the head of the center on April 1, 1969. The ASRC presented its first course offerings the following fall semester. Although the University had offered a few courses in the previous two years on African-American literature and politics, the center provided an entire department devoted to African-American research and education.
Because it is a research center in addition to an academic department, the Africana Center functions differently from other departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, as it reports to the provost rather than a dean. The center often hosts lecture series and has received grants from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the United States Department of Education. In addition, the ASRC participates in outreach programs for the Ithaca community and surrounding areas, including projects with the Elmira prison. The center’s mission, according to Robert L. Harris, Jr., vice provost for diversity and faculty development, is “to advance research in the field, but also to apply that knowledge to the improvement of black communities.”
The ASRC offers a major in the College of Arts and Sciences, a minor concentration and a certificate in African Studies, in addition to a master’s degree. Through the Africana Center, Cornell became one of the first universities in the country to offer a master’s degree in African and African-American studies, beginning in 1972.
Prof. Kenneth McClane ’73, English, attended Cornell in large part because of the newly established Africana Center and what it had to offer him. “It was wonderful for someone who had grown up as I had, who wanted to understand what it was to live in America for someone who happened to be born black.”
McClane raved about the professors, from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests, who shaped his education. He added that writer and Prof. John Henrik Clarke “taught more people what it meant to be African in the world, than really anybody.”
According to McClane, the center spent its first year at 320 Wait Ave, until the building burned down on April 1st, 1970 — April Fool’s Day. Investigators determined that someone deliberately set the fire, and neighbors claimed to have seen people running from the building that night. To this day, officials never found the individuals responsible.
The ASRC temporarily moved to a North Campus dorm building in the final stages of construction. The search for a new location focused on a more fireproof building, made of bricks and cinderblocks, but very little wood. A year later, it switched to its current location, 310 Triphammer Road.
“The student movement is now recognized by scholars as a major event that changed the course of higher education,” Turner said. “It led Cornell to what it is now.”
He referred to current trends in affirmative action, and the contemporary emphasis on valued diversity. In addition, programs like those at the Africana Center have led the way for similar identity studies programs that have emerged at universities nationwide, including Women’s Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Native American Studies.
Archived article by Stephanie Baritz