Students bring Af-Am history to life

The Afro-American Cultural Center has established itself as a Yale institution during its 35 years at Yale. Now, a few dedicated students have made the Center’s legacy accessible to future generations by creating an archive that documents its history.

The “Living Memory History Project” was begun in November 2003 by Francoise Hamlin GRD ’04 and completed this July by Ruramisai Charumbira GRD ’07, who took over as the project’s de facto director when Hamlin graduated. Some of the materials collected in the archive, which is housed in Sterling Memorial Library’s Manuscripts and Archives department, are currently on display in an exhibit in SML that will be up throughout October.

The archive contains materials including now-defunct publications such as “Black Ivy,” the brainchild of Victor Chears ’74, newspaper clippings from The New York Times and event fliers. A supplementary oral history project is currently underway, as well as a project, dubbed “I Remember–,” that seeks to confer names to the large number of unidentified persons in the archive’s 1,500 photographs.

The purpose of the archives, Charumbira said, is to enable students to “understand what black life at Yale was during different decades.”

The project proved to be a significant undertaking, according to Archivist and Head of Record Services Stephen Cohen, who helped instruct students working on the archival project how to properly box and file the materials. The house’s materials initially filled 70 linear feet of boxes, most of which were unordered.

“[Charumbira and Hamlin] were very efficient,” he said. “They whittled [the boxes] down to 17 feet.”

The jouse will add more documents to its archive collection every five years, which will be accessible to its members in addition to students and researchers, Chirumbira said. Because the house is a University organization, its archives are considered University records; as a result, the collection must remain closed for 35 years in accordance with University Secretary regulations, Cohen said. Students who wish to view any of the archive’s documents will need to request permission from the University Secretary’s Office to do so.

While she was sifting through boxes of materials, Charumbira said she noticed that the archives “lacked personal stories.”

Chirumbira said she decided to take matters into her own hands, initiating an oral history project to complement the archives in July 2004 with a taped interview of Craig Foster ’69, one of the four leaders instrumental in the house’s early history. Chirumbira and eight volunteer interviewers hope to complete 30 or 40 interviews of alumni during the anniversary celebration this weekend.

The oral history project will continue for as long as members of the house retain an interest in recording the black experience at Yale, Chirumbira said.

Monique Walton ’04, who helped Chirumbira film and edit interviews throughout the summer, said she hopes future members of the house will continue to document their stories.

“You don’t really realize there’s a history of black students who you can connect with [until you hear about them],” she said.

Chirumbira also maintains a hope that the archive will serve as a resource for student inquiry and scholarship.

“The invitation is for undergraduates to [use the archive] to write senior papers, for graduate students to write dissertations,” she said. “It’s useful in doing a comparative study of blacks in the ivies, or blacks in higher education.”

Assistant Director of Manuscripts and Archives Christine Weideman, who also assisted Chirumbira with the project, said the house’s active role in the University since its inception will help generate an interest in viewing its documents.

“[The house] has been too important a part of the last 40 years of Yale’s history for these materials to be ignored,” she said.

The “Living Memory History Project” will be housed in the Manuscripts and Archives department of Sterling Memorial Library. The project seeks to bring the 35-year history of the Afro-American Cultural Center to life using a variety of mediums.
Philip Rucker
The “Living Memory History Project” will be housed in the Manuscripts and Archives department of Sterling Memorial Library. The project seeks to bring the 35-year history of the Afro-American Cultural Center to life using a variety of mediums.

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