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Students outside the BCC

Dedicated Space

As the Black Cultural Center marks its 50th anniversary, a reflection on what makes ‘the House’ a cornerstone of Swarthmore’s Black community

Located in the 140-year-old Robinson House, the Black Cultural Center is just minutes away from the flow of Parrish Hall and McCabe Library. With its kitchen, carpeted floors, armchairs, and art depicting Black life at Swarthmore, “the House,” as it’s often called, is something of an oasis. It exudes comfort, community, and a space to negotiate the complexities of Black identity free from misunderstanding and hostility.

“It is definitely a sanctuary in many ways,” says Delvin Dinkins ’93, an assistant headmaster at a private school in New Jersey. “It was true for me and a lot of people, given that Swarthmore is such a wonderful community, but also a challenging one.”

Engaging with so many different backgrounds at Swarthmore, while fun, can be taxing, says Woodjerry Etienne ’20. “People ask questions that often display a level of ignorance,” says Etienne, a psychology major. “It’s nice to be able to go to the BCC and be with people who understand me more intimately.”

Since 1970, the House has been a hub for Black life at Swarthmore and served as an educational space, both formal and informal, for the entire community with its academic offerings and extensive library.

And yet, there is often a perception that the BCC is separate from campus, reserved exclusively for a specific group and closed off entirely to others.

“In a sense, this was our home,” says Davirah Timm-Dinkins ’93, an associate director of college counseling who connected with her husband, Delvin, through the BCC. “And like a home, there are times when you want to spend time with family and unpack the day, and other times when it’s fine to have ‘company’ come over to share the space.”

‘Brought to a Halt’

Since the 1960s, accusations of “self-segregation” have been levied against similar institutions across the country. The BCC has not escaped criticism. In 1970, a Delaware County Daily Times editorial argued that “the races will be kept apart” because of the center and that Black student protesters at Swarthmore contributed as much to racial division as White rioters opposing desegregation busing in Lamar, S.C.

Who were these student protesters and what were their goals? In January 1969, roughly 20 members of the Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society (SASS) took over the admissions office, starting a sit-in that lasted for eight days. The protest highlighted their frustrations over the low number of Black students, faculty, and administrators at the College, a lack of a Black studies program, and institutional indifference toward these issues.

“We have brought to a halt the admissions process which in decision-making has refused Black participation,” reads a letter from SASS dated Jan. 9, 1969. “Until the college submits to us an acceptable program with specific plans for the inclusion of Black interests on all levels, there will be a discontinuation of the college’s ruthless activities.”

The death of President Courtney Smith after a heart attack led SASS to end the sit-in as the shocked campus community mourned his sudden passing. Though there was a moratorium on dialogue regarding the demands, tensions remained, as many blamed the protesters for causing Smith’s death. A few months later, the College addressed one of the group’s demands by hiring two Black administrators—Assistant Dean of Admissions William P. Cline and counselor Horace Woodland—in an effort to identify and enroll more Black students. There was, however, much left to be done.

But still paramount was a physical space in which Black students could define and assert their identities in the context of Swarthmore, and the students led the efforts to claim one. In the summer of 1969, SASS member Don Mizell ’71 wrote about the need for a dedicated Black cultural center on campus. Calling it an “anchor in a White sea, a psychological and geographical point of reference,” he argued that a center would not prevent Black students from integrating, but rather make them feel more involved and less isolated.

For Mizell and other BCC supporters, it was more about self-preservation than self-segregation, especially in the face of “powerful deculturation forces at work on the Black psyche,” he wrote. SASS members like Mizell felt that Black students on predominantly White campuses were expected to downplay their Black identities, and responded by demanding from the College a pluralistic, institutionally supported environment in which these identities could be nurtured.

At the height of the Civil Rights Era, student protests with similar demands were being staged across the country. In December 1968, 65 Black students at Brown University walked off campus in protest of the institution’s low enrollment of African Americans, who comprised less than 3% of the student body. At Columbia University, students occupied an administrative building as they protested university construction of a segregated gymnasium in nearby Harlem.

“The desire on the part of Black students to have a culturally relevant social space on Swarthmore’s and many other elite, White college campuses is tied directly to the effort to expand the College’s curriculum, to grow the number of Black students in the student body, and to recognize the transformation in our national identity as part of the Civil Rights Movement,” says Professor of History Allison Dorsey. In 2014, Dorsey taught a course, Black Liberation 1969: Black Studies in History Theory and Praxis, in which Swarthmore students created an archive of documents, correspondence, and interviews—“as a bulwark,” she once said, “against the College losing or forgetting the story of Black student activism.”

In March 1970, SASS members identified the Robinson House, a women’s dormitory housing 15 students at the time (see sidebar), as the only acceptable location for the BCC after the temporary site, Lodge 4, was deemed inadequate. SASS demanded from President Robert Cross that Swarthmore’s Black community have control over the center’s programming and participants, while guaranteeing that it would be open to the entire College on a regular basis.

A March 13 sit-in by 50 students led Cross to authorize a steering committee—consisting of five Black administration members and five SASS leaders—to direct and coordinate BCC programming and access and to develop an operating budget.

By the fall of 1970, organization of the BCC was underway, but there was no guarantee that it would become a permanent fixture on Swarthmore’s campus.

“Every student was very concerned about how long this was going to last,” says former BCC director Alan Symonette ’76, who is a labor and employment arbitrator and mediator. “We didn’t trust the College to maintain it until it became more viable. There was always a crunch for dorm space, and we felt that if it became logical for the College to use the house for some other reason, they would do so.”

Solid foundation

The transformation of the Robinson House from a women’s dormitory into the BCC was made possible by a $100,000 gift from Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Michener ’29, H’54. Michener pledged the money to the College in 1970 for the express purpose of improving “race relations” through the development of the BCC and a Black studies program.

These developments corresponded with a drive by the Black community to institutionalize the BCC into the life of the College, through the transferring of McCabe Library materials, the teaching of seminars, and the centering of performance groups in that space.

Among those was the Gospel Choir, which began in 1971 to fulfill a need not met by the College chorus, whose repertoire consisted almost exclusively of Western European music. The group was initially composed of 10 members who would gather and sing in the BCC or anywhere else a piano could be found.

“The Gospel Choir was really necessary to ground me and a lot of other students,” says recording artist Vaneese Thomas ’74, H’14, one of the group’s “Founding Mothers,” along with Lynette Hunkins ’71 and Chiquita Davidson Hayes ’74. “Not only in a religious sense, but culturally, too.”

Much like the BCC, the Gospel Choir’s policy of excluding non-Black students was criticized as discriminatory and divisive. (The policy was eventually phased out.) By 1986, the Student Council and the Budget Committee actively debated whether to continue funding the choir.

Proponents argued that the policy was necessary because it situated the choir as a cultural and emotional refuge from the challenges faced at a predominantly White institution. By this time, it had grown to include alumni, faculty, dormitory housekeepers, and other members of the Black community.

Like the choir, the BCC did not just serve the student population; faculty and staff members were also deeply involved in the center’s day-to-day.

“Faculty and staff would often get together with students for dinners at the BCC,” says Jane James, who worked at the College for 30 years, primarily in Information Technology Services, while her husband, Chuck James, professor emeritus of English literature and the first Black professor to receive tenure at Swarthmore, taught and mentored students. “We would also make care packages for the incoming students and connect them with older students who helped them to adjust to the community.”

Center of dialogue

The BCC also served as an important meeting place to organize around addressing wrongs on campus and beyond, recalls Linda Echols, retired director of the Worth Health Center and former interim director of the BCC.

“There were issues around discrimination, harassment, and things that we had to take a position on,” she says. “A lot of times, the faculty and the staff and the students would plan from the BCC.”

As the center grew and became ever more intertwined into the fabric of the campus, Black students continued to express frustration over a perceived lack of understanding of racial dynamics by College leadership. An open letter published in The Phoenix in 1986 charged administrators with doing too little to increase the number of Black students and faculty members, and to involve Black community members in that process.

Socially, some Black students were tired of being expected to answer for the phenomenon of “Sharples Syndrome,” by which they were accused of isolating themselves by sitting together in the dining hall.

“No one ever asked, ‘Why are all the white students sitting together? Why are all the football players sitting together?’” says Dean of First-Year Students Karen Henry ’87. “For me, it was really important to know that I could go to Sharples at any time and find a group of Black people there who would welcome me and who I would have fun with.”

Nearly 20 years after the creation of the BCC, these accusations persisted. Race-relations workshops and open events at the BCC, including social gatherings, lectures, and exhibitions of Black art, helped address the divide. And non-Black students, such as Elizabeth Campbell ’92, a native of the West Indies, began to feel welcome at the BCC thanks to encouragement from their friends and peers.

“My first-year roommate, Christina Bolden [Smith] ’92, reached out and invited me to the BCC when I was still trying to adjust to a new environment,” says Campbell, a research associate professor in molecular biophysics at the Rockefeller University. “I really admired the BCC community; the students were compassionate, smart, and fun.”

Events of the next decade, however, would bring about intense conversations about diversity, multiculturalism, hate speech, and more that strained relations and reinforced the need for the BCC.

In 1990, students proposed the creation of an Intercultural Center (IC) to reflect and serve the needs of the growing number of minority students. It was meant to coexist alongside the BCC. However, students accused administrators of using tactics to divide groups by regularly suggesting “that the BCC be converted into the IC when they are clearly aware that IC supporters strongly rejected this idea,” according to an IC proponent writing in The Phoenix.

Fears that an IC would ultimately replace the BCC were not unfounded; across the country, college administrators debated whether race-specific affinity centers were a cost-effective method of promoting inclusivity, and whether such centers were the product of a bygone historical moment. It is unclear to what extent this discussion occurred at Swarthmore, but the vision of a postracial world in which the BCC or even the would-be IC would no longer be necessary was not far from the minds of some community members.

It was, however, far from reality. A mock lynching, defacement of a Malcolm X portrait, chalking of a racial slur on Magill Walk, and presence of racist skinheads near campus all contributed to a hostile climate for Black students in the 1990s. Simultaneously, Swarthmore admitted its most diverse group ever in the Class of 2000, with 40% of students identifying as a racial minority, including 11% as African American.

“It sometimes felt as though the College wasn’t ready for us, even though they accepted us,” says Marissa Colston ’00, now a dean for diversity and inclusion at the Westtown School in Pennsylvania. “The BCC was a space where you could organize around making real change, and you would feel supported and safe. We could do that and not be interrupted or have to explain ourselves.”

Work to be done

Over the next decade, the BCC grew both figuratively and literally. By 2009, the number of affiliated student organizations had increased to 11, up from seven in 1997, reflecting greater diversity within the community and an effort to engage students from African and Caribbean backgrounds. Renovations included updates to the kitchen, a one-story addition at the rear, and other modifications that made the House more accessible.

Though certain areas of Black life at Swarthmore underwent positive change, other aspects were static. A study of Black social life conducted in 2009 found that students felt Swarthmore misled prospective students by purposefully downplaying racial tension on campus. Respondents often felt they had to choose between proudly expressing their Black identities and pursuing friendship with White peers who might perceive involvement with the BCC as threatening.

Even now, there’s work to be done, says Associate Dean of the Junior Class and BCC Director Dion Lewis.

“We have not arrived,” Lewis says. “Our community would be mistaken to think that having this identity center for 50 years has fully resolved issues of racial equity and meaningful inclusion at Swarthmore.”

“These questions remain in America at large,” he continues. “There was a time when our society had a desire to confront a history that made it challenging for many to be an American, but these past few years have seen increased division and hatred that prevent such healing.”

The emboldening of White nationalists by elected officials, political commentators, and other influential figures—both national and international—has reinforced the importance of the BCC as a safe, supportive space perhaps more than ever before, students and alumni say. It endures not only because of these pressing external circumstances, but also because of its significance to those who have passed through its walls, sat on its couches, and found comfort in its sense of community.

“The House is a place where you’re surrounded by the history of those that came before you and paved the way,” says Windsor Jordan Jr. ’07, senior assistant dean of admissions and director of multicultural recruitment at Swarthmore. “It’s a place of belonging, and its legacy is the continued feeling of home when you return.”

“Black students and alumni who understand the relevance of the BCC will come to its defense—anytime, on any day,” echoes Keith Benjamin ’09, founder of the student group Achieving Black and Latino Leaders of Excellence (ABLLE) and current director of the Department of Traffic and Transportation for Charleston, S.C. “Because the truth is, without the BCC, we wouldn’t have survived Swarthmore. And so we defend it, and we uphold it, and we honor that space because of what it did for us.”


The House on a Hill

Many know the Black Cultural Center simply as “The House,” a reference to the Robinson House in which it resides, but few know that the official title is the Caroline Hadley Robinson House. The first resident of the building located at 411 College Avenue was not its eponym, a member of the Class of 1906, but rather Professor of Civil and Mechanical Engineering Arthur Beardsley. Built around 1880, it served as Beardsley’s residence and appeared in photographer Charles Doron’s 1881 “Views of Swarthmore” series. (See photo above.)

Hicksite Quaker Alice Paxson Hadley moved to Swarthmore from New Mexico with her only daughter, Caroline, after the death of her husband in 1896. She purchased the house from Beardsley sometime between 1902 and 1909 and lived next door to her older brother, Charles, and his in-laws.

Caroline, who later wrote a survey and analysis of 70 birth-control clinics in the U.S., married Louis N. Robinson, Class of 1905, at Swarthmore Monthly Meeting in 1908. Louis was a prominent economist who taught the subject alongside Caroline at the College and then pursued a career in criminology, advocating for prison reform in his 1921 work Penology in the United States.

Caroline died in 1946 and was followed by her husband in 1952. The latter’s will bequeathed the house to the College on the condition that it be named in honor of Caroline. By the fall of 1955, it was a dormitory for 15 female students, and it fulfilled that purpose until the formal establishment of the BCC in 1970.