A student protest sparked the founding of the Africana Center, then known as the Afro-American Cultural Center, in 1969. Students’ creativity produced the first edition of the black student literary magazine Onyx in 1984. Decades of student activism prompted the creation of the Africana Studies program in 2012. Students’ outrage led to The Three Percent rally at Tufts in 2015.
Right from the start, students have been the driving force behind the Africana community at Tufts, and this fall, the Africana Center will be celebrating just that as it commemorates 50 years on the Hill.
A slew of events for former and current Jumbos have been planned, including an ongoing exhibition at Slater Concourse Gallery titled “Student-Facing, Student-Focused,” and the Tuftonian Wakanda Gala on the Saturday of Homecoming weekend.
“When we first started talking about how we’re going to celebrate, first and foremost in my mind was that we are talking about five decades of students, and so we have to make sure that we have something for everybody — [something] that will resonate with them,” Katrina Moore, director of the Africana Center since 2008, said. “We wanted it to be a weekend of not just a celebration for the alumni, but for current students to be able to see [their] excitement and to hear the stories of alums, as they are trying to make their way on campus today.”
Domonique Johnson (LA’10), program manager of the Africana Center, expressed excitement at bringing students together with alumni of all ages at the 50th anniversary celebrations.
“I am a fan of inter-generational conversation … As people of color, those are the spaces that we tend to grow up in — it’s not just your parents and you, sometimes it’s like grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-grandparents,” Johnson said. “Sometimes college students [are] in a bubble. We don’t really think about the fact that there are people outside of the 16-to-23 age range. It really gives students a chance to network with alums, but also it normalizes and legitimizes their experience here too, because we all have that one thing in common, which is Tufts.”
Moore and Johnson worked with Kristen Valenti (AG’19), former graduate fellow at the Tufts University Art Galleries, to curate the “Student-Facing, Student-Focused” exhibition, on show until Dec. 15. The exhibition highlights the Africana Center’s past and present efforts to directly support students and advocate on their behalf with other university departments.
“We take very seriously our role to be advocates [for black students] on campus to highlight policies, procedures, activities that are happening on campus that need to be elevated or changed,” Moore said. “In addition to our student focus, we are student-facing; we are looking at all aspects of their life on campus and making sure they’re able to thrive wherever they can.”
The “student-focused” wall of the exhibition features a graph comparing the representation of black students at Tufts with the proportion of African Americans in the overall U.S. population over time. This graph is juxtaposed with a timeline that marks the founding years of all the different student groups affiliated with the Africana Center and a showcase of physical ephemera from those student groups.
“[At the exhibition] you will be able to see a timeline of the contributions that students’ voices have made over the 50 years. It’s a way for us to talk to the students who are here today, so that they know about those contributions, encourage them to speak up when there are things that are happening on campus that are making their time here more difficult [and remind them] that they do have the power to effect change and use the Africana Center as a resource,” Moore said.
The other side of the gallery shows the long history of the Africana Center and its “student-facing” programs and initiatives, stretching even before the Center’s inception in 1969 to around the 1890s when the first students of African descent enrolled at Tufts.
Valenti shared that this exhibition drew upon the Africana Center’s historical records as well as materials from an exhibition titled “Another Light on the Hill” that the late history professor Gerald Gill curated to showcase the accomplishments of black Tufts students.
“It’s important to know the history of what a university has done, and [look] at who the university is prioritizing and who occupies space. I think this [exhibition] is a great look at the history of how the Africana community has done that and looking at where they’re going now,” she said.
Moore applauded the Tufts administration for accepting students’ initial demand to establish the Africana Center in 1969 and for sustaining it over 50 years, especially when identity and cultural centers in other universities have faced cuts or consolidation into a multicultural model. Tufts’ own identity-based centers were just in flux last spring after several staff departures and unfilled vacancies, according to a March Daily article.
“During [the 50 years], there have been lots of centers that have been collapsed into a multicultural model, and Tufts has, with a lot of encouragement, kept this model of having the identity-based centers,” Moore said.
Johnson shared that the importance of the Africana Center takes on an immense personal significance, having benefited from this affinity space as a student at a predominantly white institution.
“Though we are all intersectional when it comes to [the six identity centers], it feels like [Tufts administrators] do understand that we also need separate spaces as well based on culture. It feels safe, especially in this era of America that we’re currently in, which is very interesting for the fact that this is one of the reasons why the Africana Center was created in the first place — because of the particular era in America and black students needing that safety,” Johnson said. “That is something that I honestly hope and pray that Tufts keeps going because this is something they’re doing right.”
In Johnson’s view, the Africana Center has also become more inclusive as the black demographic at Tufts has expanded over the past five decades.
“Back in 1969, it was the Afro-American Cultural Center, [then] the African American Center, and now it’s the Africana Center. That’s just a clear indication of how the demographic of blackness on Tufts‘ campus grew. It wasn’t just African American students anymore. We had a nice amount of African students, Caribbean students come through. In the last decade, maybe half a decade, the conversation of our Afro-Latinx students and where they fit in to the diaspora [grew] as well,” Johnson said. “You can see that in our art, you can see it in the representation that we have with our student employees.”
Even in the Africana Center‘s more recent past, from Johnson’s time as a Tufts undergraduate to her current role at the Center, she has witnessed the ever-growing presence of black students and their involvement in activities outside of the Africana community on campus.
“[Our students] did not apply to come to Tufts to be Africana students — they came here to be Jumbos. We support them in helping them to mesh all of those identities together through the umbrella of the African diaspora,” Johnson said. “I just love the way that students spread out. There always have been multiple black students doing various things outside of the Africana Center, but it feels like they’re a lot more visible in what they’re doing.”
The diversity of black students and their activities on campus will be reflected in the myriad of celebration events planned for Homecoming weekend on Oct. 18–20, including the Tuftonian Wakanda Gala held at Gifford House, the university president’s residence, on Oct. 19.
“I am envisioning hair color and melanin everywhere. It is Tuftonia’s and Wakanda. That gives you a wide range of very many styles that you can come in with. We probably might have people who cosplay, which is perfectly great, because at the end of the day, blackness is not a monolith,” Johnson said.
The gala will be followed by the Throw It Back After Party at Hotung Café, which will feature two DJs — a current student and an alum — serving up five decades of Africana music, harking back to the Capen House parties of yesteryear, according to Johnson.
In planning these events, Moore and Johnson have worked closely with many offices and departments across campus, including Senior Director of Annual Giving Sean Devendorf and Associate Director of Alumni Relations Gerry Wawrzynek in the Office of Alumni Relations. Devendorf spearheads the “50 for the 50th” fundraising initiative for the Africana Center.
“So many alumni were part of the Africana Center when they were students and benefited from its programming and community. We work to help connect alumni back with the center, recognize its significance as part of Tufts, and help raise needed funds for current and future activities and outreach,” Devendorf told the Daily in an email.
Wawrzynek oversees marketing the Africana Center’s 50th anniversary events to alumni, in partnership with the Tufts Black Alumni Association.
“[There’s] always a special significance to celebrating 50 years. It is a great occasion to deepen relationships with our most involved alumni, and also to reawaken the ties of those who haven’t stayed as close to Tufts since graduation. All who come back really want to contribute positively to the Africana Center’s future. It’s our job to find ways for them to do so,” Wawrzynek told the Daily in an email.
Moore has been touched by the enthusiastic response she has received from colleagues in other departments on the Africana Center’s 50th anniversary.
“Not only did I get the response that, ‘Yes, we would like to help support,’ but I received lots of messages of how important the celebration, the milestone [is] — an acknowledgement of the work that the Center’s done over the years. That was an extra response that I wasn’t necessarily expecting, but I was very happy to receive,” she said.
Moore reiterated her commitment to upholding the student-facing, student-focused legacy of the Africana Center.
“I feel that I want to create an environment that helps students know how important they are and that they deserve the best. I strive every day to make sure that we are doing those little things that help [students] to know that we are taking extra steps to make this a place they deserve to have and they deserve to come into and feel comfortable because they deserve it. That’s just it,” she said.
Tickets for the Africana Center‘s 50th anniversary events are available online, at the Center’s website.