It is an ordinary Sunday night in Robinson House, also known as the Black Cultural Center, on the corner of College Avenue and Cedar Lane. Overlooking Cunningham House and the rest of campus from its hilltop perch, the BCC appears quiet in the winter darkness. Inside, the Swarthmore African-American Student Society is holding its weekly meeting, all of its members gathered around to discuss issues within the SASS community.
This week’s meeting was on the issues of gender dynamics and sexism within the Black community and was facilitated by Violence Prevention Educator and Advocate Nina Harris and the BCC’s Director Dion Lewis. The meeting was tense as SASS members anonymously discussed the ways in which they had felt marginalized or victimized on the basis of their genders within the SASS community. The conversation lasted almost two hours as members conversed about the complexities and intersections of gender and race in the Black community both at Swarthmore and the world at large. Yet, when the meeting adjourned, members congregated, hugged, and chatted, laughing and smiling as a united community.
“For me, the BCC is a place where people who identify as Black can express themselves fully,” said Aaron Jackson ’15, a member of SASS. “I find it to be a place where you can bring the best out of each other whether it be socially or for academics or just come up with new ideas on how to make the community better. I’ve heard the word ‘community’ raised 50 million times, as has every Swattie at this point, and I’ve had a hard time trying to figure out what that means. To be here and to be able to have a smaller space, to actually be around people who identify in the same relations as you, it just feels… closer.”
This idea of the BCC serving as a safe haven for Black students has persisted for nearly 40 years. Negotiations between SASS and the Office of the President go back as far as 1968, when SASS members met with President Courtney Smith to discuss the implementation of a program in Black Studies. In 1970, as Robert Cross assumed the role of president after the passing of President Smith, SASS leaders opened further discussions for Black empowerment on campus through the creation of a unique, designated space for Black students. Originally given access to Lodge 4 as a temporary space, President Cross then suggested that Lodges 5 and 6 be allotted to Black students, but this was rejected by SASS, which claimed that the Lodges were not sufficient enough to house the growing number of Black students on campus, nor was the center well-zoned for its intended uses.
As the correspondence between SASS and President Cross continued into the spring of 1970, SASS demanded a tangible solution towards the creation of a Black Cultural Center capable of meeting all the expected needs of Black students on campus. SASS would use the Phoenix as a platform to discuss its interests in creating the BCC and to rally fellow students to its cause. However, it would take the occupation of the President’s Office on March 13, 1970 to eventually push the hand of President Cross and secure Robinson House, a former stop on the Underground Railroad, as the current BCC.
Since September 1970, the BCC has become the home of many student organizations such as the Gospel Choir, SASS, and the Students of Caribbean Ancestry. Equipped with a kitchen, library, two computer rooms, and a classroom, the BCC is currently used as both an administrative space, holding the office of the Director of the BCC and Dean of the Junior Class Dion Lewis and his administrative assistant Bonnie Lytle, as well as a space where courses are taught. In the evenings, the BCC remains open and student groups use its space for their scheduled programming.
Nonetheless, the house itself is not what draws people to the BCC. Rather, it is the sense of community and togetherness which it has come to represent in Swarthmore’s Black community. For Ariel Parker ’15, the BCC has become an escape from the hardships that come with attending a liberal arts college as a marked minority.
“I didn’t know it from that first SASS meeting, but the BCC would come to be a retreat for me,” she said. “I love Swarthmore, but there are spaces on campus where I don’t always feel welcome because of my identity as a Black woman. Certain spaces just don’t ring “home” for me. So if I had a bad day or if something was frustrating me, I knew I could always go to the BCC and find a friendly face or watch TV or play pool. So it served as a retreat for me.”
Serving as a space for Black students to feel welcomed and appreciated, as well as to demonstrate the rich history of the Black experience in America, the BCC, to many of its frequent visitors, has become a second home.
“What does the BCC mean to me? I’d say it’s a safe space, it’s a home away from home,” said Leanna Browne ’15. “It’s a space where I can connect with other Black members of the community and just feel like I’m surrounded by people who can support me and share in the same things that we may be going through. I always knew that I wanted to be a part of the ‘Black’ community at Swat so the BCC felt like a central place to start that.”
The legacy of the BCC is apparent to the students, faculty, and staff who walk its halls and occupy its spaces for their programming. While the center remains open to the entire campus community, members find it difficult to convince their friends outside of the Black community to visit the BCC, mostly because the space is believed to be “off-limits” to non-Black students. While the history behind the BCC is connected to the establishment of a space of Black empowerment, the center is in no way discriminatory in its space reservation policy, nor is it limited to the uses of select student groups.
“I would like to see the idea of the BCC being more present and more on people’s mind,” said Browne, “because, going into senior year, people ask me, ‘Where is the BCC? What’s that?’ That’s still a problem, that we’re still sort of off the radar.”