Zoe Berg, Photo Editor

In the fall of 1969, the doors of Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center opened as a second home for Black students on campus. This weekend, the oldest cultural house in the Ivy League will celebrate 50 years of political, cultural and social activities.

After a two-year delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the House is celebrating its golden anniversary with an expected 500 guests during three days of mixed in-person and virtual panels, events and receptions. The weekend’s programming is titled “Renaissance & Revolution: Celebrating 50 Years of the Afro-American Cultural Center’s Legacy at Yale & Beyond.” 

“It truly will be a blessing to reconnect after all the distancing that the pandemic has required,” Dean Risë Nelson, former director of the Af-Am House, wrote in an email to the News. “Really, the entire weekend will allow our newer students to finally be able to fully experience (and our older students, alums, and community to re-experience) the House as most of us have known it throughout its history—engaged, impactful, connected, and alive!”

The event was planned by the Af-Am House’s 50th Anniversary Planning Committee, which is made up of a variety of community member volunteers.

In a March 28 panel discussion, Nelson said that she and the committee have been working on this event since 2017, and she has been envisioning the celebration since she first took up the role of Af-Am House director in 2015.

“The 50th anniversary is a monumental event in the history of the House,” Sheryl Carter ’82, a co-chair on the planning committee, told the News. “It provides us the opportunity to both reflect and be aspirational.  Understanding the challenges that were overcome and the sacrifices that were made over the prior decades will allow us to understand and more fully appreciate where we are today.  It will also create space for us to consider the original goals and aspirations of the Founders of the House and assess how much farther we, Black Yale, still need to go in order to reach those goals.”

The vision for the event, as proclaimed on the event’s official website, includes honoring the Af-Am House’s legacy and highlighting community members’ contributions to academia, the professional world, arts, politics and culture. 

The weekend will see a wide range of in-person events — with the majority live-streamed — as well as six prerecorded sessions, Nelson told the News. The entire weekend will feature around 50 speakers in total.

“It’s been really rewarding to just be able to see the things that the house has done over the years, and the many alumni that are doing great things that are going to be brought back because of the event to speak at the event, run panels and just be a part of it,” Amara Mgbeik SPH ’23, who worked on communications for the celebrations, told the News. “So it’s been great to see that institutional memory in a sense come alive.”

The event kicks off with a Yale Black Alumni Welcome Reception at 4 p.m. on Friday, followed by a celebration of the arts later that evening at 7 p.m. 

That celebration includes a panel of alumni discussing their experiences in the arts and reflecting on the importance of art. That will be followed by a showcase of student arts groups from the Af-Am House and other cultural centers.

“I think it’s also really exciting to see these people in person,” said Yamil Rivas ’24, who will emcee the celebration of the arts. “I feel the pandemic made nothing, or anybody, be real in a Zoom call …. and I’m really looking forward to and glad to see these people’s work be thoroughly and properly acknowledged and celebrated.”

Saturday will see a plethora of events. Some highlights include a talk by Cara McClellan ’10 LAW ’15,  attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, tours of the Schwarzman Center, a mixer and a panel on the importance of teaching and studying Black history. The day will also include an intergenerational conversation between alumni spanning from the class of 1970 to the class of 2019.

Saturday night will end with the traditional Bouchet Ball and Awards Ceremony, where students and alumni get to meet and celebrate each other’s achievements.

“I’m so excited for the Bouchet Ball because it was something the Black community has always had and it’s literally been nothing but a myth,” Rivas said. “I’m a junior and so much of Yale has been nothing but a myth. I think during the pandemic these parts of the cultural centers were the first to go, and I am really, really, really excited that [the Af-Am House] is finally getting the celebration that it deserves.”

The awardees are being recognized for a wide variety of work, from Albert Lucas’ ’90 contributions to New Haven and urban youth to Zora Howards’ ’14 writing and performance abilities.

One of the many awardees is Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee ’72 of the 18th Congressional District of Texas, who will be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award.

On Sunday, there will be a service recognizing those in the House community that have passed on, followed by a Black Church at Yale service and a farewell brunch.

“It’ll just be a great time to bring people together and kind of remind us that we’ve come this far by faith,” Mgbeik said.

The Af-Am House is located at 211 Park St.

Update, April 29: This article has been updated to include mention of the live-streaming of events as to clarify the extent of the virtual aspects of the AFAM50 celebration. 

DANTE MOTLEY
Dante Motley covers Black communities at Yale and in New Haven. He is also an Associate Editor for the YDN Magazine and works on "The Yalie" podcast. He is a sophomore in Grace Hopper majoring in anthropology.