After 50 years of political struggle, the African American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois has a new building.
In 1969, the Black Student Association (BSA) 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 his very own Special Educational Opportunity Program, popularly called “Project 500.” Later, Chancellor 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 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 capacity building was appropriate because a “temporary” Black Cultural Center was interpreted as meaning that when funding of Project 500 dissolved, the Center would go away. Thus there was no need to grow the Cultural Recreational Program to scale, or to improve the facility.
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 had 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, these 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 other 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 single multicultural center. Power and authority were diverted from cultural directors, and the University administration purposely ignored the drip, drip, drip deterioration of the Black Cultural Center.
On April 4, 2014, University of Illinois 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 building.
On February 25, 2015, Champaign-Urbana activist Martel Miller and I convened a press conference, asking the University of Illinois Board of Trustees not to renew the employment contract of Chancellor Phyllis Wise, in part because the student findings had been sustained, and safety evaluations of the center had not been conducted throughout the years of 2012-2014.
In 2016, Urbana campus Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson, now Executive Vice President, committed $2 million to build a new African American Cultural Center.
Looking back at history, other generations of students and stakeholders will remember 1970, 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 University of Illinois 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 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 (BSA). The students and Chancellor Wilson’s courageous acts deserve acknowledgement, and the University deserves our continued financial support. But let us be clear, there is more work to be done.
Fifty years later, the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center, La Casa Cultural Latina, Native American House and the other cultural programs are modeled after the “temporary” Black Cultural Center.
On the weekend of October 4-6, 2019, the Urbana campus hosted a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the center. The lack of planning time and money devoted to the event resulted in uneven outcomes. Most troubling, many students and stakeholders who were directly involved in the need for and development and survival of the center were not informed, nor were they invited to participate in the weekend-long celebration. It was an event about us without us―a huge mistake.
The University of Illinois is moving its cultural centers towards becoming self-supporting. The real question is, what constituent group or which individual stakeholders will financially support the cultural centers on a continuous basis?
Additional future challenges include:
1) The persistent admissions gap among numbers of African American, white, and Asian students suggests that African American enrollment has plateaued.
2) The Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center is not operationally connected to any other campus unit on a continuous basis. Thus, programs and services are few and episodic.
3) Whether the state civil service system will continue to support 36e(3) exemptions for Cultural Center Directors when they perform as program coordinators.
The challenges are many. May the force be with them.
A slightly different version of this article was published in the News-Gazette on October 4, 2019.
Terry Townsend is a native of Champaign-Urbana. He is a long-time civil rights leader and former member of the University of Illinois Black Student Association (BSA). He served for 10 years as a Housing Commissioner for the Housing Authority of Champaign County. He holds degrees from the University of Illinois, and is a reciprocal retiree of both the University of Illinois and the state of Illinois.