Before he arrived in New Haven from Charleston, S.C., Ralph Dawson ’71 had never set foot in a classroom with white students, teachers or administrators.
But when he moved into Lanman-Wright Hall as a freshman in 1967, Dawson was among only two or three black students residing in the building, and one of about 60 black students out of a total undergraduate student body of roughly 4,200.
During his time at Yale, Dawson joined a student movement to create an enclave for the University’s growing black community. The Afro-American Cultural Center, the result of their efforts, will celebrate its 35th anniversary this weekend.
The creation of a center for black students was one of the chief goals of the Black Student Alliance at Yale, which formed in 1966. The group also called upon the University to establish an African American Studies program.
“We tried to impact everything that impacted African Americans,” Dawson said. “We all felt we had an obligation because we had been given a great opportunity to go to an institution like Yale.”
In 1967, BSAY met with Yale President Kingman Brewster, who authorized the creation of a committee that convened weekly until 1968 to discuss the implementation of BSAY’s goals. In the spring of 1968, the Yale Corporation approved the establishment of “Afro-America,” a center for black students and community members that would be located at 1195 Chapel St., just around the corner from the House’s location since 1970 at 211 Park St.
While the House’s role at the University since opening its doors in the fall of 1969 has broadened as the composition of Yale’s black student population has become more diverse, Dawson said its initial mandate was simple: Back then, he said, the House was “a survival center.”
Craig Foster ’69, who led the movement for the House with the help of classmates Armstead Robinson, Glenn DeChabert and Don Ogilvie, said it quickly became a social hub for black students on campus. It hosted events such as mixers with female students from “sister schools.”
The House was also politically active in its early years, responding to civil rights issues and the Vietnam War and attempting to focus the University’s attention on how it could help the African-American community in New Haven, Dawson said.
Dawson recounted a major demonstration that occurred on May Day 1970, when black students on campus rallied to convince the University to support fair trials for members of the Black Panthers.
The House’s activism included running community-oriented programs was “Operation Breakthrough,” which forged collaboration between the University and community organizations to train more African Americans for employment in service and maintenance jobs at Yale, Dawson said.
The House’s community activism peaked during the 1970s, and has since been on the decline. When Kathleen Cleaver ’83 B.A., ’89 J.D. arrived on campus in 1981, she said, the House’s involvement with the community had “cooled.”
Assistant Yale College Dean and Afro-American Cultural Center Director Pamela George said the House’s prior level of involvement in the community may have been linked to the greater intensity of political activism among students in the past.
“The civil rights movement, anti-war movement and anti-apartheid movement made natural connections [with the community],” George said.
There was a palpable connection between the House and the African American Studies program at the time, Cleaver said. In addition to hosting lectures and discussions featuring professors from the department, Cleaver said she helped the House organize a program called the Black Tie Society that promoted further interaction between faculty and students.
At present, the House strives to uphold a broad mandate that encompasses its social, cultural, political and academic functions of the past. Although its mission has not changed over 35 years, George said, it has refined the way the mission is implemented.
“Its purpose is still to create a place where students of African-American descent can feel a sense of belonging, to increase the University’s understanding of African-American issues and to connect more strongly with New Haven community,” she said. “But we’ve expanded the way we reach out to students of mixed heritage, and gay and lesbian students.”
Cleaver, a senior African American Studies lecturer at Yale and a Senior Lecturer in Law at Emory University, said the House will continue to be relevant long into the future.
“Cultural houses — have an important place in the development of undergraduates,” she said. “They give [students] a sense of belonging. They’re not transitory.”