After 50 years of political struggle, the University of Illinois African-American Cultural Center in Urbana has a new building.
In 1969, the Black Student Association and black Champaign-Urbana activists, with support from white students, presented 41 demands to campus leaders.
One demand was for a Black Cultural Center that would serve the “social needs of black students.”
The outcome: Chancellor J.W. Peltason authorized the creation of a “temporary” Black Cultural Center as part of Peltason’s very own special educational opportunity program, popularly called Project 500.
Later, Peltason amended the mission of the Black Cultural Center to serve all students and all Champaign-Urbana black residents.
The Black Cultural Center was located in a small house with three permanent employees. This meant that the Black Cultural Center would not have the capacity to serve such a large constituency. Thus, the pleas developed into advocacy for a bigger, better facility supported by vastly increased resources. But all this was lost on an indifferent campus.
To the campus, absence of a capacity building was appropriate because a “temporary” Black Cultural Center was interpreted as meaning that when funding of Project 500 dissolved, the Black Cultural Center would go away. Thus, there was no need to grow the cultural recreational program to scale or to improve the facility (house).
At the Black Cultural Center, program conceptualization, development and implementation were each left to the discretion of each generation of directors and staff. To date, there have been nine cultural center directors. Typical of many nonprofit leaders, these pioneers did an excellent job, given the limited resources.
By the 1980s and 1990s, student activism significantly declined; the political marriage between black students and Champaign-Urbana activists was dead. Simultaneously, anti-Project 500 sentiment developed at the highest administrative levels of the Urbana campus. Together, the factors put the Black Cultural Center primarily into maintenance mode.
What followed was the formulation of the first legitimate action to end the “temporary” Black Cultural Center and selected individual cultural centers. The vice chancellor for student affairs created a new position — assistant vice chancellor for intercultural relations — in a strong move toward creating a multicultural center. Power and authority were diverted from the cultural directors, and the university administration purposely ignored the drip, drip deterioration of the black cultural center.
On April 4, 2014, UI graduating students called attention to the deplorable condition of the building in which the African-American Cultural Center was housed. On April 24, 2014, the provost acknowledged the “unacceptable” condition of the African-American Cultural Center.
On Feb. 25, 2015, I and Champaign County activist Martel Miller, in a press conference, asked the UI Board of Trustees not to renew the employment contract of Chancellor Phyllis Wise, in part because: The student findings were sustained and safety evaluations had not been conducted throughout the years 2012-2014.
In 2016, interim Urbana campus Chancellor Barbara Wilson, now executive vice president, committed $2 million to a fund to build a new African-American Cultural Center.
Looking back in history, other generations of students and stakeholders will remember when Champaign police killed Edgar Hoults. During the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, students and activists held a mass meeting in the auditorium of the UI at the Urbana campus. Administrators agreed to name the Black Cultural Center after Mr. Hoults. But, as students graduated and left Champaign-Urbana and the anger over the killing subsided, the then-university administrators reneged on their promise.
Today, the African-American Cultural Center is named for Bruce D. Nesbitt, a Champaign native and former Champaign police patrolman.
The Bruce D. Nesbitt African-American Cultural Center is the signature achievement of the Black Student Association.
The students and Chancellor Wilson’s courageous acts deserve acknowledgement, and the university deserves our continued financial support. But be clear, there is more work to be done. There are two challenges for the future.
No. 1: The persistent admission gap among numbers of African-American, white and Asian students suggests that African-American enrollment has plateaued.
No. 2: The cultural center is not operationally connected to any other campus unit on a continuous basis. Thus, the programs and services are few and episodic.
Today through Sunday, the UI will hold an event to celebrate and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the African-American Cultural Center, the second building dedication and jump-start significant fundraising and development.
May we hope that it can be the beginning of a new beginning?