By Marissa Payne, The Daily Iowan
You could go days without seeing a black person around campus and Iowa City when Venise Berry was a University of Iowa student in the 1970s.
It was that sense of isolation compounded by the racial tensions of the times that prompted black students to call for a space on campus of their own — a space where they could come together, relax, and just “be” with people who looked like them — while living and learning at a predominantly white institution.
Amid the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, in 1968, the UI gave black students just that — a residential-style unit in the form of a house dedicated to serving them. “It was ours,” Berry said. “It was a place for us.”
1968 marked the year the UI started putting resources toward physical spaces in which historically marginalized populations could go to find others like them. Now, 50 years later, UI has four cultural and resource centers that serve the Latino, Native American, Asian-American, Afro-American, and LGBTQ communities. They aim to affirm students’ identities and provide a place in which those students can feel a sense of belonging.
The UI’s centers stand among other public institutions, including the 14 Big Ten schools, which also have centers dedicated for historically marginalized populations on campus. Each of the UI’s centers was founded for different reasons and in different ways, says Prisma Ruacho, the Asian Pacific American Cultural Center coordinator. But the Afro House was among the first cultural centers in the nation to be established, serving as a hub for student activism during the Civil Rights Movement. “We wouldn’t be here without that first step,” Ruacho said.
At the time, students had to fight to secure that place to call their own against push back from administrators.
Then came Philip Hubbard — the vice president for Student Services and dean of Academic Affairs at the time and also the first African American vice president at a Big Ten university. Hubbard helped black students on campus secure a temporary location for a center at 3 E. Market St., which opened in October 1968.
Plans for a center for black students on campus came at the recommendation of the UI Human Rights Committee in 1967.
The center would especially serve black students, Hubbard said then, where they could express themselves through literature, art, music, poetry, and plays. “The center is not just a service to the Afro-Americans but to the entire community,” Hubbard told the Daily Iowan in 1968. “In many places, there is a general ignorance about Afro-American culture in general. The center is an opportunity to educate the entire community.”
Hubbard told the state Board of Regents in 1970 that the survival of black students could be attributed to the center’s existence, allowing students to share a common heritage and come together. “Although it is difficult to separate the social, academic, spiritual, and recreational aspects of its operation, everyone who visits the center is convinced that it is a great asset to the university community,” he said.
By 1976, the center had moved from 26 Byington Road to its current location, 303 Melrose Ave. The other three centers sprang up in the following decades on the surrounding streets — one in the 1970s, and two more in the 2000s — forming a cultural corridor on the West Side of campus.
The center was established before Berry — now a UI associate professor of journalism and African American Studies — set foot on campus.
But Berry remembers studying at the center, participating in game nights, watching movies, and dancing.
“The floor would do this,” Berry said, smiling as she waved her hands up and down to mimic the Afro House’s floor’s motion under her feet. “It would be bouncing.”
Most of all, she said she recalls the bond she shared with her peers who frequented the Afro House.
“We were friends with other people,” she said. “But we maintained a really strong sense of unity, a really strong collective presence where we felt a place where we kind of belonged.”
Centers needed then and now
Those who work with the centers say they remain as necessary now as they were 50 years ago.
UI senior Arika Allen, who grew up in Davenport, said she struggled to immediately feel a sense of belonging on campus her first semester before she started visiting the Afro House.
As Berry did, Allen said she enjoys studying and hanging out at the center. She knows there’s always a place where she can go to find the support she needs.
“Once you step into the Afro House, it’s like, ‘I’m home. I can relax. I can be myself,’ ” she said. “I felt that the minute I stepped through the door freshman year.”
UI Assistant Director for Multicultural Programs Tab Wiggins, who oversees the centers, said she has seen a renewed focus on the spaces under the current university leadership. Funding for the cultural centers in the last five fiscal years has generally trended up, serving as a reflection of the university’s commitment to supporting diversity and improving the campus climate.
Inside, the centers’ walls are decorated with culturally relevant art. The spaces include kitchens, couches, tables, bathrooms — all providing a livable “home away from home” atmosphere for students to enjoy.
When UI President Bruce Harreld started at the UI in 2015, he thought the university hadn’t really taken care of the centers. Harreld said he visits the centers several times a year to check in and see what else the university can do to help.
“… I keep saying to each of the members of each of those communities, you need always have a sense of being able to get into a room where you’re full of people just like you, and they understand what you’re going through, and you can relate to, and you can have the conversations and get the support that you need,” he said.
This article is reprinted with permission from Marissa Payne and the Daily Iowan, and is an excerpt from their October 22, 2018 article entitled: “The roots for students to flourish: After 50 years, Afro House remains necessary”. To access the whole article, please visit the Daily Iowan’s website.
Learn More: multicultural.uiowa.edu/culturalcenters