2018 marks the UConn African American Cultural Center’s 50th anniversary. Dr. Willena Price, director of the Center for 25 years, shared the origin of the Center and some additional sentiments to commemorate the occasion. The Center was created on behalf of an original group of black students around the time of the Civil Rights movement.
“Back in the early days when the Center was founded, we had maybe 20 African American students… and like today, they were spread all out in terms of their majors,” Price said. “They’d go long periods of time without seeing anybody else [who looked like them]. They’d go to their halls and they’d be the only, only black person in their hall, they go to meals, the only, they go to classes, the only.”
African American students decided to hold a sit-in at the president’s office to request a space to get to know one another and were given the cultural center, originally named “the Black House.” The cultural center evolved from “the Black House” to a space in the Student Union basement, and was finally relocated to its current locale on the fourth floor of the Student Union as the African American Cultural Center (AACC).
Price also spoke about some of the events happening to mark the Center’s 50th year. On Feb. 1, the beginning of Black History Month, the AACC is inviting two alums to speak at the Student Union Ballroom.
“They're gonna be talking to our students, giving them a sense of what life was like in the late 60s and 70s for African American students who came to the University of Connecticut,” Price said.
On the weekend of Oct. 27, the Center is hosting a series of events in honor of the close of the 50th Anniversary year.
“Friday night there's going to be this fabulous, fabulous concert at the Jorgensen,” Price said. The AACC and the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts are hosting “Opera singer Kathleen Battle, and the Voices of Freedom Gospel Choir… are gonna be singing along with her in this major, major event.”
On that Saturday, there will be a gala to honor its alums and some previous presidents of the University of Connecticut from the AACC’s early years, and on Sunday, there will be a spiritual brunch for people of all religions and a farewell for the visiting alums.
Price expressed her pride and enthusiasm over the total growth of the Center from its early beginnings to the flourishing community that it is today.
“The fact that we have existed as an African American Cultural Center on this campus, I think is extraordinary,” Price said. “We have been blessed with wonderful resources, extraordinary students, a gorgeous space, so I couldn't ask for more in terms of the support the University of Connecticut has given to the African American students.”
The Center is also more than just a space for students to gather.
“We offer credit-bearing classes, we do community outreach— we offer many, many services… I want people to understand that the African American Cultural Center is here, number one, to raise the level of awareness of all parts of this university about the history and culture of African Americans,” Price said. “I want them to understand that our students certainly are smaller in number but they expect and require every kind of support that every other student needs.”
Dr. Price praised the African American community on campus as hardworking, academically successful, well-rounded and just overall good people. She said that the Center is working on making the university a welcoming and supportive climate and emphasized that the AACC is open as a positive space to all people of all races and ethnic backgrounds, not just those who identify as black.
“One of the things I always care about and I love it when students say, when you walk across the bridge... something feels good, feels positive, feels warm, feels welcoming… You are feeling that this is a special place, and you feel ‘Wow, I could hang around here a little while,’” Price said.
“Initially, I didn't understand what was special about the space,” Assistant Director Steve Cartagena said. “Now, I see the necessity of a space where students can just be, and not have to conform to anyone else. It's a home: a home for culture, a home for people who need an affirmation that they are important, because without spaces that are dedicated for our communities— non-white communities— it can almost seem as if our cultures aren’t valued by the rest of society.”
Several students in the Center gave their own opinions of what the AACC meant to them. Carlton Steer, sixth-semester sociology major; Alleyah Dannett, eighth-semester WGSS and human rights major; Milcah Sajous, sixth-semester HDFS major; and Nicole Hamilton, sixth-semester management information systems major all weighed in.
“It’s pretty much just a really nice place to relax, get away from the rest of the school… it gives you a place to meditate for sure,” Steer said. “And Dr. Price is an outstanding woman, she’s phenomenal. She’s one of the true genuine people that I've found on this campus. From helping with classes to anything that you’re going through at home, she’s just here and she’s just got so much knowledge.”
The feeling of belonging that the AACC’s early members sought after has definitely been found by its current students.
“If there's any place that’s gonna be my go-to to go to, it’s gonna be the African American Cultural Center, because it’s so important for us as black students to be able to see ourselves. We are, what, eight percent of the school, which means that most of us have the experience of being the only black kid, or one of four, max, in a class,” Dannett said. “Coming here, it's just a healing place to be able to be like ‘What’s up sis?’ and be able to engage in dialogue that I don't necessarily feel so comfortable to do outside of the Center all of the time.”
Sajous is another student who spoke about how much she appreciated finding a community of people to easily relate to.
“The Center, to me, is definitely a safe space— you literally see people who look like you, who are going through kinda the same struggles that you’re going through,” Sajous said.
Hamilton talked about the ease of meeting new people in the Center and extending those relationships to encounters around campus.
”I really feel like being here ... I walk into the room, I say hey to everybody. It never feels like I'm not supposed to be here,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton was very grateful to find a community of black women in the Center and remarked about the many intellectual discussions she has been a part of.
“This place especially means something to me because we’ll have so many women that go through here. We’ll have full-blown conversations about hair, and that’s one of the things that I learned about when coming here,” Hamilton said. “I’m so proud of my growth as an individual, but I really do have the people in the Center to thank for that because you know they taught me how to better myself, and take care of my hair, for example.”
“There's a lot of things we discuss like history, social concepts, that I might not have known unless I came to a GBM [general body meeting]. And there's so many great organizations here that are through the center that I've truly met a creative family through,” Hamilton said.
The African American Cultural Center means so much to everyone who walks through its doors. The Center has supported the growth of a close community for the past 50 years.
Veronica Eskander is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.