Students, alums celebrate Black History Month at Vassar

On Thursday, Feb. 8, the African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College held “A Celebration of Black History.” The VSA also has some Black History Month events in the works./ Courtesy of Hannah Benton

Since 1976, February has been officially recognized as Black History Month. Throughout the month, people remember the significant role of African Americans in U.S. history and celebrate their invaluable achievements (History.com, “Black History Month,” 2010). Vassar College is not an exception to this tradition of celebration; several communities within the campus have been providing various opportunities to engage in Black History Month. Last Thursday, Feb. 8, the African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College held a multi-generational event called “A Celebration of Black History” in the Aula. Karen Valentia Clopton ’80 planned the event with the purpose of recreating and recollecting the atmosphere of Kendrick House.

Kendrick House is on Raymond Avenue across from the Main Gate. The building was constructed in 1927 and served as the Afro-American Cultural Center from 1960 to 1975 (Vassar ALANA Center, “The Center’s History”). According to Clopton, Kendrick House was also a residential space for Black students to study and socialize together. However, on Dec. 11, 1974, the Board of Trustees decided to discontinue Kendrick House as an affinity space for Black students since the New York State Education Department accused the dormitory of violating anti-segregation laws (The New York Times, “Vassar to Close All-Black Dormitory,” 12.14.1974). Nevertheless, Kendrick House is remembered fondly by many of the alumnae/i who lived there during their time at the College. Clopton emphasized that Kendrick House’s safe and comfortable environment should be commemorated.

Eric Wilson ’76, one of the former residents of Kendrick House, shared his memories with the audience: “Every afternoon I came back from the lab, there was always Bid Whist going on … we have a little cocktail table with the house and there were four easy chairs sitting around, and always people were sitting on the chairs playing games and talking about other people’s businesses … It was just some of the wonderful times that I have in campus, social experiences,” he said. “Living in the house was wonderful in that on campus there was an influx in integrating campus, racially and gender-wise. It was warming to have a place to come to.” He went on, “I don’t really want to give this impression, but I’m kind of realizing the fact that every Vassar student didn’t have what we had during our years because it was incredibly warming to have a familiar home. We didn’t call it Kendrick. We called it House … It was one of the most loved places I’ve ever been privileged to live.”

Clopton briefly talked about why remembering Kendrick House is so important. “We [have] embarked upon the project over the last six months called Buildings and Belonging, mapping African Americans’ experiences at Vassar College since 1861 … and we are really looking at how this sense of place can foster belongings. I heard so many current students saying ‘we do not belong here.’ In reality, [Vassar is] ours and it has always been ours.”

Not only alumnae/i participate in creating an enthusiastic atmosphere for Black History Month; Vassar students are also putting their efforts toward providing opportunities for every student to learn about Black history. VSA Chair of Equity and Inclusion Tamar Ballard shared her view of students’ role in Black History Month. “It’s about an overall celebration of Blackness, especially Blackness at Vassar because that is something that doesn’t get celebrated a lot of times,” she said. “Especially during Black History Month, even right now, usually there is a Black person on the Vassar webpage, but there is not even that right now … I feel that is our role as students, picking up the slack where the school falls behind and just making sure that we are able to advocate as much as possible for the stuff that we deserved to have here.”

Ballard also talked about a future plan organized by the VSA for Black History Month. First, cooperating with Paula Madison ’74, VSA is considering having a field trip to Harlem to visit notable sites related to African American History, such as the Studio Museum, which highlights the work of 19th- and 20th-century Black artists. Ballard also pointed out that strolling around the streets in Harlem would be an insightful experience for students. She said, “Just walking around Harlem, you are really getting to indulge in Blackness, because Harlem was one of the first fully Black [communities] and Black neighborhoods … Through this opportunity, students can interact with the past.” Furthermore, the Campus Life & Diversity Office and the VSA Committee on Equity and Inclusion are planning a talkback about Black representation in media, and to build on this event, students will have a chance to watch Marvel’s “Black Panther” the next day.

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