By Abby Wargo
When senior Black Student Union president Jocelyn Elmore took the podium at last month’s alumni mixer to give the audience an update on the current state of affairs for students of color at Washington College, the alumni were shocked to hear about the issues they are facing. Now with five racial bias incidents reported during the 2019-20 school year, the BSU’s fight to have their own safe space on campus has become an even greater concern.
The alumni, many of whom graduated in the past two decades, cited major gains that they made for students of color during their time at WC.
In 1997, a group of black students formed a step squad — the first of its kind at WC. In 1998, they formed a pep squad; another first for the College. That same year, they formed a gospel choir. The former Dale Adams Heritage Exchange changed its name to the Black Student Alliance in 1999, giving birth to what is now the BSU. To top it off, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the same group of students worked to obtain their own house on campus dedicated to black culture, the Center for Black Culture.
And when they learned what happened to all of their progress, they did not stay silent.
“When you guys said we need a building, there was a building,” Terri Griffin Dawson, Class of 2000, said at the mixer.
To their dismay, the current students had no idea what the alumni were talking about.
BSU advisor Erneatka Webster said that the club has a small space on the first floor of Caroline.
“What do you mean, ‘small space’?” Dawson asked. “No, no, no, no, no. It was a whole building.”
The building, Webster said, which was located in the current Human Resources building, burned down in 2015. At the time, it was the Business Office.
“Who burned the building?” Dawson asked as the audience laughed. “I am sorry, we went through a lot to get that building.”
Many of the alumni felt that the current students’ lack of knowledge regarding their past efforts was an erasure of history.
Class of 1999 alumna Colleena Calhoun, in a phone interview on Feb. 27, said that “a lot of it is swept under the rug and buried and erased, and I believe that is systematic [racism] because what we did there was huge, it was unprecedented.”
“This is why we need our alums to back us up, because we do not know all of the history,” Webster said at the mixer. “There is no [recorded] history about any of this that we know of.”
After the mixer ended, the question remained unanswered: what happened to the Center for Black Culture?
Life as a student of color at WC has always been difficult. The campus is both historically majority white and fairly conservative and, according to Calhoun, Chestertown is still a highly segregated community, so race relations are uneasy at best.
“It definitely was difficult trying to navigate just being a student and at the same time being a student activist because [white people] were not prepared to have you there in the first place,” Calhoun said.
Christine Lincoln, Class of 2000, described conditions at WC for black students as “very unsafe” when she was a student.
“There were constant barrages of racial slurs, threats, things being written on students’ dorm doors to go back to Africa. We were not welcome, and they made a point of telling us every chance they got that we were not welcome there,” Lincoln said. “There were no black faculty, there were no black tenure track professors, there were no resources for us, there was no black student alliance advisor at the time — this was a very unwelcoming, unsafe environment.”
Lincoln said she helped organize a group of students who compiled a campus racial climate report detailing all of the bias incidents on campus. Black students at the time also engaged in activism to make their voices heard.
“We wrote down all of the things that we needed to see change [in,] and we just began very strategically to put pressure on administration. We began to have rallies and sit ins, we would storm the president’s office, we began to contact the media — it was a barrage, it was never-ending,” Lincoln said.
The non-stop efforts did bring about change at WC.
“We forced [the College] to deal with the issue of real diversity and the administration brought in professionals to facilitate conversations and discussions. So, where most students could just go to college and have fun, probably drink and party, get an education, [for] all the black students, we had to fight every day. Of course, we had good times too, but for the most part, we fought every single day,” Lincoln said.
The Center for Black Culture was born from the fruits of this activism. The seed began in the library when black students could not find themselves represented among the shelves. There were a few books dedicated to black history, but “nothing substantial,” Lincoln said.
“We needed resources. We had the right to know our history, African history, the Diaspora, all of that was just lacking. That really became my focus for two straight years, just every single day trying to do everything we could to get that up and running,” Lincoln said.
The Center for Black Culture started as one room in the basement of Clifton M. Miller Library, according to Lincoln. But they quickly outgrew that space in a matter of weeks, so BSA members began looking for a building to use. They found one in the space that now houses Human Resources.
“When [the old Public Safety building] fell into disrepair, nobody wanted to touch it, and when administration gave us the green light, they said, ‘Hey, if you all want to use it, if you all want to fix it up, feel free to use it,’” Calhoun said. “We fixed it up, by hand. Painted, fixed the floors, fixed the walls…we decorated it — we did all that through our SGA funding. I do not know what happened, but somehow, that building was taken away as the Black Studies Center and relocated someplace else, and that building was no longer available. I do not know how that happened or why.”
Lincoln said of the building, “It was a wreck. It was falling apart; it was a mess. We put so much money, effort, time [into renovations] … we did everything. Someone gave us a computer program that could log our books and all kinds of donations: people donated art, people donated books that had been in their families for hundreds of years — we had very expensive, very valuable books and pieces of artwork in that space that came from alums and family who were finally pleased for their stuff to be represented.”
Lincoln said the Center had versatile uses; professors sent their classes there to do research, students and community members would check out books, and the BSA hosted meetings and events there as well. It was open to anyone and everyone who wanted to use it; all were welcome, Calhoun said. There were student interns that worked there as well, and the goal was to have someone in a full-time directorial position.
“It was just amazing. And as soon as it started flourishing, [College administration] decided they wanted to take the building. So, I do not know what happened. I was told it was at the Starr Center, but now I just have no idea what happened,” Lincoln said.
After Lincoln graduated, she stayed on as the Center’s director for a few months before moving away, but very soon, she lost track of it.
“The next thing I knew, I was told that it was just gone. I was like, ‘What happened to all those books, all those things, where is all of that? It is a shame, it is sinful,” Lincoln said. “WC should be ashamed of itself right now, to this day, that they would let something like that happen to that place, because here is the thing: if you do not educate people within your community, you just perpetuate ignorance. So imagine if that center had been up and running for the past 20 years, [WC] students could be educated on some of the diverse cultures that exist around the world and perhaps get rid of the racist ideas and xenophobia, all things that newer black students are having to deal with.”
“It is sinful, it is such a shame, it is heartbreaking,” she said.
In recent years the Black Student Union is once again looking for a building that they can call their own.
“It is a continuous fight for this space that we deserve and that we used to have,” Elmore said.
Elmore said that after the Center lost its free-standing building, it moved around several times. The BSU is trying to figure out when the changes happened, but all of the people involved have left the school and paperwork is hard to track down.
“It is a whole big mess. That just helps the school tell us that there is no evidence that we had a house. So that is where we are at right now is trying to prove that we had a free-standing building and that we deserve one, which I think they understand, but the problem is what building would we occupy,” Elmore said.
Former Director of Intercultural Affairs Darnell Parker gave a more comprehensive timeline of the Center’s many homes.
“When I arrived at WC in 2006, the Center for Black Culture was located in the Spanish House, along with the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and International Programs. When the Spanish House was removed, the Center moved with the Office of Multicultural Affairs to the Casey Academic Center Apartment. When the Career Center moved to the center of campus, I advocated to move the Center to Caroline House in the old Career Center Library,” Parker said.
Parker helped mold the Center into its current iteration in Caroline and connected it to the Intercultural Affairs office. By folding the Center into Intercultural Affairs, Parker ensured that it would continue in the face of varying levels of student involvement.
“When I arrived, we cataloged the books in the Center and created a database. If books were not available in Miller Library, students had the opportunity to check the books out in the Center for the Study of Black Culture,” Parker said.
When the Center was relocated to Caroline, Intercultural Affairs purchased additional computers and a smart television for students to do schoolwork and hold meetings, as well as extending access to the Center after school hours for students to use.
“It was important for me to recognize and continue the legacy of the alums who created the Center. Engaging the alumni through the Office of Multicultural Affairs was critical and I am grateful for the alumni support,” Parker said.
Some College officials do not remember the free-standing building ever existing at all, and there are few written records of it. In The Elm, there are only two brief mentions of the Center for Black Culture, one in an article from 1998 and another from 2000, but its creation was not covered. No mentions of it exist in old issues of The Pegasus yearbook, either. As Webster pointed out at the mixer, the institutional memory simply does not exist.
President Kurt Landgraf, who has only been at the College for three years, was unaware of the house’s existence or its fate.
“No one went,” said Marcia Landskroener, senior director of strategic communications for the College.
Lincoln said she did not believe that to be the reason for the move.
“If no one was going, that probably happened when they decided they were going to take the building back, and that they put it wherever they put it in this obscure place where no one had access to it, like that decision was intentional. So, if people cannot find it, then of course they are not going to go to it. But it is a calculated thing that was done,” Lincoln said.
Calhoun agreed, saying the current WC administration is “straight-up bullshitting” about what they can and cannot do regarding a free-standing building for the Center for Black Culture.
“Someone made a decision to erase the Center and to lie about how and what has happened to it,” Lincoln said.
A new space for minority groups
The Center has remained in Caroline since 2006. Interim Director of Intercultural Affairs Carese Bates said last semester, a student re-organized the library according to genre. Faculty, staff, and students can — and do — check out books to either read for leisure or implement in teaching or training opportunities, she said.
Because of the location in Caroline, as well as limited marketing, the Center is not used as often as it could be, according to Carese Bates, interim director of Intercultural Affairs.
“It is definitely a space that can provide a lot of knowledge and resources, for sure,” Bates said.
Although the BSU insists it does not adequately fulfill their needs, the BSU has gained a new space for the Center for Black Culture in the basement of Minta Martin. The space will be shared with other minority groups on campus.
The Intercultural Affairs office plans to move there by the end of this semester to create an all-inclusive safe space for diverse groups of students.
“One of the most meaningful things we can do here is provide a safe place for students to go to,” Landgraf said.
Bates envisions the wing in Minta having a conference room that students can reserve for meetings, a lounge area to hang out with friends and act as a safe space to convene, three Intercultural Affairs offices for the director and student ambassadors, a prayer room, a computer lab, and accessible gender-neutral bathrooms.
“It will provide a comprehensive center for Intercultural Affairs, address the office’s needs and student needs and concerns,” Bates said.
“Instead of siloing, especially in a place like WC, all these different groups and different houses is to find a space where they can have their own designated space but within a community of other intercultural student groups where the director can interact with all of them, and have some shared space but also their own space,” Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Sarah Feyerherm said.
“Once you walk through the space, it is much more appealing than people think it is,” Feyerherm said of the space in Minta.
The aesthetics of the space are not the issue, however.
“It is nice, but it negates the fact that we had our own free-standing office space and center, so we are still fighting for that regardless of if we take this move in the meantime. We still need our own space as the Center for Black Culture,” Elmore said.
Elmore cited the growing percentage of minority students on campus, saying that if WC wants to attract more students of color, there needs to be a place for them to feel comfortable.
“When I took a tour in Minta, it is nice, but it is still in a residence hall building. It is not much space so we cannot all gather in our own center, we will have to go into a common room or a larger office space to gather if we need to, and it is still a walk for those who live across [Washington Avenue] on the upperclassmen side to walk to Minta if another [racial bias] incident happens. So, it is a move, but it is not ideal for us,” Elmore said.
Bates acknowledged that the space in Minta is not a perfect solution. It is less accessible to students who live on the opposite side of campus who need access to a safe space. All of the racial bias incidents this year have been instigated by motorists.
“Because we are scrambling for space… this will be the best option that we have for right now. In a perfect world, we could be in the center of campus in a safe, secure space and that would really, for symbolism purposes, provide a good look, but this, I think, is the safest and best option for what we are working with,” Bates said.
Regardless of the efficacy of the Intercultural Affairs office in Minta, the BSU will continue to fight for an on-campus building they can call their own.
“We are going to be cooperative and take this as a process, but we are not stopping at the basement of Minta, not when the Center for Black Culture used to be its own free-standing building, and once we find the proof of that we will provide [administration] with that,” Elmore said.