It was a moment that, looking back, will be seen as pivotal in the university’s history: Students, faculty, alumni, donors and UO officials broke ground on the long-anticipated Black Cultural Center last Friday under a glorious fall sky.
Among the alumni on hand were those who laid the first blocks of the center’s foundation 50 years ago, as well as founding members of the Black Student Task Force who were instrumental in getting the process underway more recently. All looked on with pride as ceremonial shovels of dirt were turned, and the center’s construction phase officially began.
The groundbreaking was part of a historic week of events on campus that included the inaugural Black Alumni Reunion and Black Student Convocation, a Freedom of Expression Series panel on protest featuring Danny Glover, and this year’s kickoff event in the UO African-American Workshop and Lecture Series.
Applause and cheers of support were interspersed throughout Friday’s event as speakers discussed the long and winding path that led to the groundbreaking, and what the center will cultivate once its doors open next fall.
“While it’s important to understand what will be located within the place, in my opinion, it’s even more important to understand what will come out of the Black Cultural Center,” said Vice President for Student Life Kevin Marbury, who has played a key role in the center’s development.
He noted the transformative power a similar center had on the campus where he spent his days as an undergraduate and foresees the UO center having the same effect here.
“The students that went into that space as young men and women were launched into adulthood because they had a place to breathe, to be, to grow,” he said.
Speakers pointed out that the Black Cultural Center’s roots can be traced back to 1968, when members of the Black Student Union protested and asked for programs dedicated to their distinct needs. The effort gained traction in 2015 when members of the Black Student Task Force rallied on the steps of Johnson Hall with a list of 12 demands that included a cultural center.
The task force met with President Michael Schill, which led to the creation of committees that sought ways to enact the group’s ideas and set the university on the path to Friday’s ceremony.
Once complete, the 2,700-square-foot, $2.5 million facility at the corner of 15th Avenue and Villard Street will serve as a home base for academic and social activities for black students and showcase artwork that celebrates black heritage.
“This day and the days to come are also, and should always be, about those who have advocated and organized in order to make it possible. To be clear, black students on this campus willed us to this day,” said 2016 alumna Shaniece Curry, who spoke at Friday’s event and whose work as president of the Black Women of Achievement helped spark the 2015 effort that led to Friday’s groundbreaking.
“We are foremost here as function of the strength, courage and selflessness of Shaniece Curry and Black Women of Achievement,” added Jaleel Reed, also a 2016 alumnus and an original member of the Black Student Task Force. “We are here because of the collective work of the task force. We are here because of the Black Student Union of 1968. And we are here on behalf of all those that provided support, encouragement, resources and guidance. This cultural center is a testament to that collective work and that support.”
Schill noted the significance of Friday’s ceremony, while acknowledging the work that lies ahead.
“Breaking ground on the Black Cultural Center marks an important milestone in the evolution of our university and community,” he said. “It is both the culmination of an incredible amount of work and collaboration, as well as the beginning of an exciting journey that will continue to improve our campus community and culture. It is by no means the end of our collective work to ensure equity and inclusion is achieved at the University of Oregon.”
In attendance were several donors whose generosity made the center possible, including Nancy and Dave Petrone, who gave a lead gift of $1 million; as well as Mariann Hyland, representing the Oregon Community Foundation; Janine and Joe Gonyea; and Jamie Smith Carr.
Junior business major Maria Mbodj, who also spoke at the groundbreaking and is a member of the center’s planning committee, said the building’s influence will be immediate.
“When I started out here, I wanted to find my community, and find my people,” she said. “When the center is complete, people won’t have to look that hard anymore to find community, because we’ll have the Black Cultural Center, and it will be a safe haven for them.”
After the event, Curry said the process may have gained visibility thanks to her and her fellow students on the task force, but she said credit also goes to those who preceded her.
“The conversation started way before my time,” Curry said after the event. “But as the conversation built up and gained momentum during my time on campus, I didn’t see how it was going to happen exactly. But I knew we had some students that were dedicated to it, and I knew we had some administrators that were dedicated to it.
“But we did have a vision, and here it is.”
The week was historic on multiple levels.
It started with a freedom of expression panel discussion, “The Role of Protest in Transforming Education,” featuring civil rights activists Kathleen Cleaver and Danny Glover, hosted by the Black Studies Program.
Earlier last Friday, the UO African-American Workshop and Lecture Series got underway with a speech by political strategist and commentator Angela Rye.
The inaugural Black Student Convocation took place shortly after the groundbreaking at Gerlinger Hall. The event welcomed new and returning black students, as well as new black faculty and staff, to campus.
Another first was the Black Alumni Reunion, with events held throughout the weekend, including a networking event, campus tours, tailgating prior to Saturday’s football game and Soul Sunday Brunch.
Ericka Warren, president of the Black Alumni Network, said the groundbreaking was one aspect of what was truly a memorable weekend. She reflected on the role she played as a link connecting those courageous students who first protested in 1968 to those who are on campus today planning what will take place inside the center when it opens.
“When reflecting on the past, there is a sense of sadness it has taken so long,” Warren said. “Yet this weekend represents a huge victory in the fight against racism, injustice and inequity.”
She also was buoyed by the opportunity to build community: “One of the best parts of the weekend was to see the smiling faces of black students as they came in contact with hundreds of people who looked like them and being able to provide a forum for them to gain personal and professional guidance from alumni who had successfully navigated being a black student at the UO.”
—By Jim Murez, University Communications