African-American Institute

There is not a plaque to mark it, but during the 1960s the tree that stands in Krentzman Quad in front of Ell Hall served as the university’s first unofficial African American cultural center. The tree was used as a meeting place where African American students socialized and kept one another informed of university and global news. As time passed, the African American students who met under the tree wanted a home on Northeastern’s campus. Since the university was attended predominantly by commuters, the students envisioned a center that was both community-oriented and student-centered.

On February 19, 1969, students submitted a proposal to President Knowles requesting the establishment of an African American cultural center. They insisted that the center be directed by an African American and that a specific building be set aside. The students rejected the idea of the center occupying office space within an existing university structure. With a building of their own, the students felt that they would create a permanent African American presence at Northeastern.

A group of students met with President Knowles on May 9, 1969. They submitted a more specific proposal for a five-part center that would include an African American center and a Department of African-American Studies. The students were granted a two-story building located on 104 Forsyth St. for the administrative offices of the Afro-American Institute, as it was named; the university also rented the top floor at the Norfolk House, a Roxbury community center to house the institute’s library and other academic resources. Northeastern’s African American students felt it was important to have part of the center in the community because they were the community and knew that the community needed more resources.

By the fall of 1970, Northeastern’s full-time African American population grew to about 500 students. Many of them came from areas outside Massachusetts. Although it was beneficial to have a diverse African American presence on campus, the newer students did not have quite the same sense of community. They wanted all of the Afro-American Institute’s programs and services to be available in the Forsyth building. Due to space limitations, the library remained at the Norfolk House while all other activities moved to campus.

Chuck Turner, a prominent community activist who later became a Boston City Councilor, was the Afro-American Institute’s first director. He oversaw the merger of Norfolk House and the Forsyth building, and the institute’s move to 40 Leon St. in the fall of 1971. It was during Turner’s two-year tenure that turmoil between the students and the center’s staff began to brew. In winter of 1971, Turner left the Afro-American Institute and became the Director of Boston’s Black United Front.

Poet and playwright, Ntozake Shange, succeeded Turner, to deal with the uproar that had come to a boiling point. Students and staff disagreed on the direction of the center. Staff believed that strong ties with the community were crucial, while students felt that integration into the university was more important if the institute was to attract more of the university’s African American students. After less than a year, the Afro-American Institute’s second director was fired, and the university threatened to close the institute because it was underutilized.

In 1972, Gregory T. Ricks became the associate dean and director of the Afro-American Institute. At the beginning of Ricks’ six-year term, there were approximately 700 African American students at Northeastern, and by 1976 the numbers rose to about 1,000. By March 1975, the institute’s name had changed to the African-American Institute. The Amilcar Cabral Memorial Center, named after the assassinated leader of independence for Cape Verde and Guinea, was established in 1975 on the first floor of the institute. Because it offered social, educational, and cultural programs, more students were drawn to the African-American Institute. Under Ricks’ guidance, the institute was able to find a direction and mend the relationship between the students and staff.