Nearly half a century ago, student protests led to the creation of Cornell’s Africana Studies and Research Center. Since then, the Africana Center has trained generations of leaders in academia, the professions, business and public service.
This fall during Homecoming Weekend, Cornell will sponsor a series of commemorative events culminating in the dedication of the site of the original Africana building at 320 Wait Ave., which was destroyed by a fire that was suspected to be arson on April 1, 1970.
The university will host two major events during the weekend: a screening and panel discussion of the film “Agents of Change” on Sept. 23; and the dedication of the original Africana Center site on Sept. 24. The events are free, and the public is invited.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the Africana Center’s important contributions to the entire university and the Ithaca community, and to commemorate the tragic destruction of Africana’s original home, which is tied so deeply to Cornell’s history,” said Hunter Rawlings, interim president and professor emeritus of classics.
On Friday, Sept. 23, at 2:30 p.m., the Africana commemoration will kick off with a multigenerational panel discussion featuring alumni, faculty and students that will place the Willard Straight Hall takeover in the context of black student activism at Cornell and nationwide. The event will also feature a screening of the new hourlong documentary “Agents of Change,” produced by Cornell alumni Abby Ginzberg ’71 and Frank Dawson ’72. The film documents the 1969 events at Cornell and events at San Francisco State in 1968. The panel and screening will be held at the Willard Straight Theater and will be introduced by Gretchen Ritter ’83, the Harold Tanner Dean of Arts and Sciences.
On Saturday, Sept. 24, the dedication ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. at 320 Wait Ave. The establishment of the site was requested by Black Students United in their November 2015 letter to President Elizabeth Garrett and Vice President Ryan Lombardi. The site will include a bench, landscaping and plaque bearing an image of the original Africana Center building.
“We are both inspired and energized by the rich history of black student activism at Cornell. It is a legacy we take seriously; the story of the old Africana building must be told wholly and truthfully,” said Amber Aspinall ’17 and Jaylexia Clark ’19, co-chairs of Black Students United.
“In order to repair and strengthen our community, it is important for the university to acknowledge the criminal destruction of the original Africana house,” said Kevin Gaines, the W.E.B. DuBois Professor of Africana Studies and an event organizer.
The dedication ceremony will include performances by student groups; remarks by student, faculty and alumni speakers; and remarks by Rev. Kenneth Clarke, director of Cornell United Religious Work. A photographic exhibition, “Black Life on the Hill, 1966-1970,” with photographs by Fenton Sands, '70, will be on display at the Africana Studies & Research Center during the month of September.
Sponsors for the events include the Office of the President, Division of Student and Campus Life, College of Arts and Sciences, Africana Studies and Research Center, Black Students United, Alumni Affairs and Development, and the Division of University Relations.