Advocacy to actuality: a history of the Afro-American Cultural Center
The Afro-American Cultural Center, home to many African American students at Yale, has a deep history dating back to the 1960s.
Yale Daily News
When organizations and schools nationwide celebrate Black History Month, they recognize the generations of African Americans who built a home for the Black community in the United States. At Yale, this narrative is found close by as well, in the University’s Afro-American Cultural Center.
In 1964, a record number of 14 Black men started their first year at Yale. They decided to start what was called “Spook Weekend,” in which they, along with other Black upperclassmen, brought hundreds of Black students to Yale. Over the course of a year, Spook Weekend developed into the Yale Discussion Group on Negro Affairs. From this, the Black Student Alliance at Yale, a vibrant community for Yalies, was formed.
Dick Tolbert, a founder of the Black Student Alliance at Yale, told the News on May 4, 1967 that BSAY’s founders had doubts about how the first all-Black weekend would “come off.” He feared it might further isolate Black students from the overwhelmingly white student body at Yale.
But his doubts were dispelled when “it came off very well.”
The four original goals of the BSAY were as follows: “Increased Black enrollment; The development of Afro-American Studies; Better relations with the Black New Haven community; An Afro-American Cultural Center.”
“The AfAm house is truly a space that fosters a community for Black students here at Yale. it’s nice to have a space like the House amidst the trials and tribulations of attending a [predominantly white institution].” Kadija Nabe ’25 wrote to the News.
Originally called Afro-America, the Afro-American Cultural Center, also known as the House, officially opened its doors in the fall of 1969. It was originally located on 1195 Chapel St., close to the New Haven community, which allowed for students to create an even bigger community. The House is currently located at 211 Park St.
The House has undergone numerous physical changes since its first opening. After the 35th anniversary of the House, renovations began with a group of alumni volunteers; this was under the guidance of former Af-Am House Dean Pamela Y. George, who helped to raise almost four million dollars for these renovations and leadership programs.
Many figures were crucial in the growth and development of the House, including Khalid Lum. Lum advocated for a wider range of events to be sponsored and for student staff to be hired.
Each director of the Af-Am House brought about a new philosophy and vision. Former Director Rodney T. Cohen believed in the House being a space for students to discuss, learn and become scholars, beyond just socializing. He created a number of different outreach programs and even created connections with Ghana and West Africa.
Risë Nelson is the current director of the House and is an assistant dean of Yale College. Her vision for the House includes rebuilding bonds with the community, as she was raised in New Haven, as well as supporting students through any social justice or student wellness initiatives.
Students detailed their positive experiences at the House. Leleda Beraki ’24, student assistant at the House on the Student Outreach and Programming Team, wrote to the News: “My experience at the House has been nothing but incredible. There are so many student groups that operate out of the House, not to mention the many people that are on staff. It’s a testament to the diversity and beauty of the Black community both at Yale and in New Haven.”
The House explores Black history throughout the entire year with a monthly discussion series on Black identity and culture. Previous discussions have included “The Convergence of Black and Brown Power: The Relationship between the Black Panther Party and the Brown Berets” and “Ever So Humbled: African Americans, Settler Colonialism, and the Elusive Quest for Home.”
Nabe also said that events like the Jubilee! New Student Welcome Ceremony and the Harvard-Yale block party have allowed her to build a support system throughout her time at Yale thus far.
“I’ll forever be grateful for the House for being a safe space for all Black students,” Nabe wrote.
Specifically, this year for Black History Month, affiliate organizations of the House are hosting numerous events — including film screenings, guest speakers, dance classes and a trivia night — which the House has compiled in a list.
Beraki added that the role of the House does not change during Black History Month, as “At the House, Black joy, Black success, and Black history isn’t confined to 28 days.”
What started out as four original goals of the BSAY has grown into a vibrant community for Yalies and beyond. The Af-Am House is a place where many feel safe and comfortable, and it has expanded its influence to be a cultural staple of Yale.
The Afro-American Cultural Center is the first and largest Black cultural center amongst the universities in the Ivy League.