A commemoration ceremony will dedicate the original Africana Center’s site this homecoming weekend — marking the completion of one of the demands Cornell’s Black Students United delivered to University administrators last year.
The site — located at 320 Wait Ave. — will include a bench, landscaping and a plaque describing the space that once existed. The ceremony will also feature performances by student groups, remarks by students, faculty, alumni and community speakers.
The original site of the Africana Center was established after a 36-hour occupation of Willard Straight Hall in 1969; the structure was destroyed by a fire ignited by an arsonist in April of 1970.
Originally requested by BSU in a letter to President Elizabeth Garrett and Vice President Ryan Lombardi last November, the new commemoration is the product of collaboration among many organizations on campus — including BSU, the Office of the President and the Africana Studies and Research Center.
The W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Africana Studies and History and event organizer Kevin Gaines said next Saturday’s ceremony will allow alumni, students and faculty to both acknowledge the past and heal as a community.
“It’s very important for the University community to have the benefit of that full reckoning and telling of the history to reflect on what the building stood for and how important the loss was to the community then,” Gaines said.
Renee Alexander ’74, associate dean and director of intercultural programs and advisor to Black Students United, called the ceremony a “very positive step toward inclusion” and a “strategic opportunity to begin a broader conversation about where we are now on race, difference, and student and university relations.”
Alexander said the event symbolizes the importance of recognizing student voice, stressing that the Willard Straight Hall takeover in 1969 led to seismic changes in policy — including the inclusion of student representatives in the Board of Trustees, the reestablishment of the Student Assembly and the implementation of a definitive campus-wide code of conduct.
“What needs to continue to happen is more than just students meeting to learn more about each other,” Alexander said. “Universities need to provide some leadership and some structure.”
With the opening of the new center, Cornell joins a national movement of student protests that have led to the formation of ethnic studies programs on college campuses, according to Eric Kofi Acree, director of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library.
Acree said protests at San Francisco State College in 1968 — which will be featured in a screening of Agent of Change on Sept. 23 at the Willard Straight Theater — resulted in the formation of the first black studies program and served as a backdrop for the events at Cornell in 1969.
“The screening and ceremony set the stage for the rest of the work that we will continue to do on this campus — around building bridges across the community,” Alexander said. “At that time, it would have been impossible to do that, but now we can come together as a community and do that together.”
The weekend will also allow current students to participate in intergenerational dialogue with alumni who experienced protests at Cornell, enabling them to better understand today’s struggle to make society more inclusive, Gaines said.
“[This conversation] is an important and positive part of history, because it reminds us if things like that don’t happen, I might not be here,” Acree said.