When Vera Wells ’71 came to Yale in 1969, she was, in many ways, an anomaly. Wells was part of the first class to graduate women from Yale College at a time when Yale’s goal was to train “1,000 male leaders,” as then-University President Kingman Brewster put it. She was a transfer student from the historically-black Howard University, and she felt her dark skin made her an outsider at Yale.
For Wells, who was active in student government at Howard, finding a community at Yale was essential. In the Afro-American Cultural Center, known colloquially as the Af-Am House, Wells found her niche, she said.
“The people at the Af-Am House were reaffirming,” Wells said. “It’s a homey atmosphere, a guaranteed safe haven.”
Along with about 500 other alumni, Wells returned to campus this weekend to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Af-Am House, a gathering that represented the largest reunion in the cultural center’s history.
The reunion brought together Af-Am House alumni not only to reflect on the Af-Am House’s past but also to chart a course for the future through panel discussions and lectures featuring Yale faculty and alumni.
Events began Thursday night with an early screening of “Precious,” a film produced by Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey that debuted in November, and continued through Sunday with a Black Church at Yale celebration featuring Rev. Frank Reid ’74 as a guest speaker.
The Gala Dinner held Saturday at the Omni Hotel was the centerpiece of the weekend. Maxim Thorne ’89 LAW ’92, senior vice-president of the NAACP, led the event and introduced keynote speaker Lani Guinier LAW ’74, who in 1998 became the first black woman to receive tenure at Harvard Law School. In her speech, Guinier raised questions about whether Yale should admit the qualified students with impressive pedigrees or the qualified students most eager to take advantage of Yale’s resources. She also urged audience members to view President Barack Obama’s victory in November not as the end but as another battle on the road to a racial equality in America.
“This is not a post-racial moment,” Guinier said. “But it is an emancipatory moment.”
‘A Turning Point’
Friday night featured a dramatization of the history of blacks at Yale titled “Still on the Journey,” which included performances from groups like Shades, Rhythmic Blue and Konjo! African Dance Troupe. The historical role of the Af-Am House was a theme throughout the weekend, particularly to Friday’s second performer, a student slam poet.
“In my mind, Yale was not established in 1701, but 1969,” he said, garnering shouts of agreement from the audience.
Yale College Dean Mary Miller echoed these sentiments in her opening remarks at the welcome reception Friday, addressing the importance of the Af-Am House to Yale’s development as a community. In an e-mail to the News she said 1969 was “a turning point” in Yale’s history, citing the admission of women to Yale College and the formation of the Asian-American Students Association as other transformative events.
The Af-Am House was founded at 1195 Chapel St. in 1969 and moved to its present location at 211 Park St. in 1970. In its early stages, the house struggled to find support and eventually fell into disrepair, Wells said. Wires hung from the ceiling, and the heating system often failed.
In response to these problems, Wells and other alumni led an effort to make improvements to the house in both cosmetics and infrastructure, changes that were unveiled at the 30th anniversary celebration, to widespread approval. A plaque now stands in the Af-Am House commemorating the efforts of Wells, Erica Turnipseed-Webb ’93, Kurt Schmoke ’71 and Woody Brittain ’70 to renovate the house. The four were honored at Saturday’s Gala Dinner.
Both students and alumni interviewed said the reunion has provided them with the chance to reflect on the hard work that has allowed the Af-Am House to grow.
“It’s a good opportunity to understand the entire struggle that led to the house and the creation of the community,” Natasha Lightfoot ’99, an assistant professor of history at Columbia University, said. “It was nice to feel at home right away.”
‘A WORKING GATHERING’
Just as the Af-Am House has grown, so too has the prominence of Yale’s black community. Since 1969, the presence of black students has grown from 2.2 percent of the student body to nearly 10 percent, University Secretary Linda Lorimer said at the Gala Dinner.
But Richard Albert ’00 LAW ’03, an assistant professor of law at Boston College who directed a roundtable discussion Saturday about values in the black community, said the occasion moved beyond just reflection on “the long road we’ve travelled.”
“It hasn’t been so much a celebration as a working gathering to plan for the next decade,” Albert said.
Such planning will become necessary this May when Pamela George, assistant dean of Yale College and director of the Af-Am House, will leave her position to become an assistant dean of academic affairs. Still, George has been actively involved in developing goals for the Af-Am House. She listed leadership development, mentorship programs among alumni and students, outreach to the community and increased recruitment as primary objectives for the Af-Am House in the years to come.
And, should growth continue as it has, the goals seem within reach. In 2004, the Af-Am House established an endowment that to date has raised over $800,000. And in January 2008, years of discussion culminated in the establishment of the Yale Black Alumni Association, a group tied to the Association of Yale Alumni. George credited these efforts with the reunion’s success.
“This is not just a reunion where people reconnect,” George said. “This is a commitment to continue building this institution.”