Afro-American Cultural Center: 50 years of ‘renaissance and revolution’

The first Black cultural center in the Ivy League culminates its 50th anniversary celebration with in-person events April 29–May 1.
Students are pictured at the Afro-American Cultural Center in its earlier days

Students are pictured at the Afro-American Cultural Center in its earlier days. The center marked its 50th anniversary in the 2019–2020 academic year but will have its first in-person celebration April 29–May 1, drawing generations of alumni back to the campus.

One of Timeica Bethel’s most exhilarating memories of her time at Yale took place in the campus space that to her felt most like “home”: the Afro-American Cultural Center.

It was Election Day in 2008, and Bethel, Yale College Class of 2011, had joined with others at the center to encourage local community members to vote and to arrange transportation to polling sites for those who needed it. Later, at a standing-room only election “watch party” there, she watched the results come in on television, hoping fervently that America would elect its first Black president. When Barack Obama was declared the winner, the room “erupted”  in screaming and cheering, recalled Bethel, who had cast her own vote for president for the first time. Then, as part of a large crowd, Bethel walked from the Afro-American Cultural Center to Old Campus, where everyone joined in a circle to sing the hymn “Life Every Voice and Sing.”

We felt like we had done something and that our voices had been heard,” Bethel said of the experience during a livestreamed, virtual interview hosted by the Yale Alumni Association (YAA) in late March to mark the Afro-American Cultural Center’s 50th Anniversary celebration.

Next weekend, April 29-May 1, Bethel will be back on campus as the center culminates its 50th anniversary celebration with its first in-person events, which are centered around the theme “Renaissance & Revolution: Celebrating 50 Years of the Afro-American Cultural Center’s Legacy at Yale and Beyond.” The center marked the official anniversary of its founding throughout the 2019-2020 academic year, but had to postpone in-person gatherings due to COVID-19.

For Bethel and other organizers of next weekend’s celebration, there is great excitement in finally being able to join with generations of Yale alumni and current students whose time at Yale has been inextricably linked to the Afro-American Cultural Center, affectionately known as “the House.”

The center —  the first Black cultural center in the Ivy League — was established in the fall of 1969, following a time of racial and civil unrest at Yale, in the New Haven community, and throughout America. In 1967, students formed the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY), which lobbied for increased enrollment of Black students at the university, the development of an African American studies major, improved relations with the City of New Haven, and an Afro-American Cultural Center. In 1970, the center played a pivotal role during the infamous May Day rally and protest on the New Haven Green during the murder trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale by hosting members of the Black Panthers.

Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center was first located at 1195 Chapel St., moving in 1970 to its current 211 Park St. home, which has since served as a locus for cultural, social, and political activities for Black students on campus. The center is home to nearly 40 undergraduate and graduate student groups and organizations, among them the Black Church at Yale, the a cappella group Shades, the Yale Gospel Choir, the Yale Black Law Students Association, and the dance group Steppin’ Out.

Bethel is one of the co-chairs of the 50th Anniversary Planning Committee, along with fellow alumni Don Roman ’71 and Sheryl Carter Negash ’82, with oversight by Risë Nelson, who served as director of the Afro-American Cultural Center from 2010 until just last month, when she took on a new role as director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the Yale University Library. In the aforementioned Yale Alumni Live interview, Nelson and the three co-chairs said that the three-day “Renaissance and Revolution” celebration will recognize the historic and current significance of the role of the cultural center and the intellectual, professional, artistic, political, and cultural contributions made by its members to Yale and to society at large.

In addition to social gatherings, the weekend events will include the following:

• “Celebration of the Arts” (Friday, April 29, 7-9 p.m.), a panel discussion featuring alumni who will share insights from their work in the arts and reflect on the role of the arts in transforming the world. A showcase featuring student performance groups affiliated with the center and other campus cultural centers will follow. Speakers include attorney and entertainment and media adviser Gregory A. Thomson ’85, ’89 LAW; playwright and Yale School of Drama faculty member Tarrell Alvin McCraney ’07 M.F.A.; film director and writer Mariama Diallo ’10; and painter and MacArthur Foundation Fellowship winner Jordan Casteel ’14 M.F.A.

• “What’s Going on in the World?” (Saturday, April 30, 10 a.m.), a discussion of how Black alumni are banding together to support and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion at Yale and other American universities across the country through the Coalition Against Racism in Education Inc. (C.A.R.E.) Speakers include Cara McClellan ’10, ’15 LAW, an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and members of C.A.R.E.

• “The House Through the Ages: An Intergenerational Conversation” (Saturday, 1:45 p.m.), a reflection by alumni on the legacy of the center and an exploration of its future. Speakers are Ron Howell ’70, Stuart Taylor ’82, Ruth Botsio ’09, Timeica Bethel ’11, and Catherine Labiran ’19 M.A. Former Afro-American Cultural Center director Pamela George will moderate.

• Brittain Lecture (Saturday, 3 p.m.), a panel including Yale faculty members from African American studies and Yale graduates who majored in the field will discuss why teaching and studying Black history matters, how students have applied their degrees beyond Yale, and what Black alumni can do to support the Yale department and the expansion of Black studies at large. Featured speakers are Yale faculty members Crystal Feimster, Carolyn Roberts, Aimee Cox, and Jacqueline Goldsby, and alumnus Ralph Dawson ’71. Yale faculty member Phillip Atiba Goff will moderate.

• Bouchet Ball & awards ceremony (Saturday, 7 p.m.), a formal gala that will bring together Yale students and alumni from across the decades for a celebration of 50 years of Black leadership, achievement, and community. Speakers are Sheila Jackson Lee ’72, Yale faculty member James Forman Jr. ’92 LAW, and Obi Ndefo ’94, ’97 M.F.A. Awards will be given to nearly a dozen alumni and Yale faculty members for notable contributions to the Black community at Yale and beyond.

• Special remembrance & Thanksgiving (Sunday, 10 a.m.), which will honor alumni, faculty, administrators, community members, and students who died during the center’s history. This is a virtual session; members of the Afro-American Cultural Center community contributed slides of those they wish to honor.

• “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” (Sunday, 11 a.m.), a Black Church at Yale service led by guest alumni clergy from across denominations, followed by brunch. Featured speakers include Bishop Frank Reid ’74, and Black Church at Yale Pastor Orlando Yarborough ’06 M.Phil. ’06, ’10 Ph.D.

There will also be some virtual events for alumni who cannot attend the celebration in person, including the Yale Alumni Live interview featuring the celebration’s planning committee co-chairs. In that interview, recorded last month, Risë Nelson noted that the in-person celebration is taking place following a time of great challenge due to the pandemic and national protests in response to the slayings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among other Black citizens. During this time, the Afro-American Cultural Center was temporarily shut down as the campus resorted to remote teaching, learning, and gathering.

It’s amazing what we’ve been able to do together in the face of so many challenges,” Nelson said in the interview. “I’m excited to see how students pick up the torch and carry on.”

In that same interview, Don Roman said one of his favorite Yale memories was of the May Day protests during the Bobby Seale trial of 1970. The center, Roman said, was a “safe house” where Black students could retreat in the midst of the “uncertainty and fear about what was going to happen during that tumultuous two-week period.”

Given the role the center has played in the lives of generations of Yale students, it is of the utmost importance that it continue to be that safe space for Black students, Sheryl Carter Negash said in the interview.

We want to make sure it is a sustainable organization at Yale,” said the Yale alumna, who has served on the YAA Board of Governors and has been an active participant in Yale’s annual Day of Service, among other alumni engagements.

To this day, she said, the center remains “one of my happiest places in the world.”

Most events have been sold out. Registration is currently open for the “Celebration of the Arts” event taking place in Woolsey Hall on April 29 at 7 p.m. All are welcome to join online for livestreamed events and the pre-recorded sessions that will be posted on the AFAM50 events page starting April 29. Only those with confirmed registration will be admitted to the in-person events.

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