Africana Center's foundation pioneered, influenced field

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Joe Schwartz

The third in a series of articles about the Cornell's four-decade legacy of transformation since 1969, a pivotal year in the university's history.

The Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC) has a legacy of pedagogy that would not have been accessible in mid-1960s academia, says James Turner, founding director of ASRC from 1968-86.

"Africa was regarded as a continent of modest civilization and unimportant in international geopolitics," Turner says. "African-Americans were not recognized for their vital role in the making and building of America, especially economically and culturally."

The black studies movement followed years of civil rights advances and violent social unrest throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Black students began coming to Cornell in larger numbers in the late '60s. "What they experienced was a social environment that was very insular, at best unwelcoming, and at worst hostile," Turner says. Their classes did not address their history or culture, so "they raised the demand for what was then called a black studies department at Cornell."

Africana studies at Cornell was piloted in 1968-69, with courses in African-American literature and politics in the civil rights movement.

The proposed center was actively supported by Keith Kennedy, then associate dean in the College of Agriculture; President James Perkins and his successor, Dale Corson, whose "vision and determination to support African-American studies was very important," Turner says.

Student activism also helped catalyze support, and ASRC was approved and funded before the Willard Straight Hall takeover occurred in April 1969.The center opened in September 1969 with 160 students, 10 courses and seven faculty members. Students and faculty had roles in structuring the program, including historian John Henrik Clarke, who helped shape the curriculum. An Africana research library established in 1969 now bears Clarke's name.

The original facility at 320 Wait Ave. was destroyed by arson in April 1970, and in 1971 ASRC moved to 310 Triphammer Road, a former fraternity. That building was renovated and rededicated in 2005.

Cornell was not just swept along in the black studies movement; it emerged as a leader in the newly established field of Africana studies.

"It brought Africana and African-American studies together in one place," instead of being split among various departments, says current director Salah Hassan.

Designating the new unit as a center and not a program "allowed for the most flexibility for self-governance and the best possibility for flexible development," Turner says. "From the beginning it was our commitment to develop a first-class academic program with an integrated curriculum."

With a unified approach that was neither discipline- nor area-bound, "the Africana Center provided a model that units at other universities sought to emulate," says Hassan, noting similar initiatives at such peer institutions as Harvard, Princeton, Northwestern and Yale.

The center's stature and reputation grew when it attracted many distinguished scholars and intellectuals to Cornell, including writer James Baldwin. Its success also opened intellectual space for women's studies, Latino studies and Asian-American studies at Cornell, Turner points out.

In 1973 ASRC granted the first master's degree in a pioneering and still pre-eminent graduate program in African and African-American studies. By 1976 the number of students and course offerings would more than double from 1969 levels.

Meanwhile, its educational mission continued to broaden and change with the times.

"This center was founded during the civil rights movement, and black studies in America and at Cornell were created through the politics of agitation," then-ASRC director Don Ohadike said in October 2001. "After 30 years, we are moving away from the politics of agitation to that of consolidation and understanding."


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