Black student leaders petition for Black Cultural Center on campus

The Winston P. Warrior United Black Students Office is located on the second floor of the Shalala building.
The Winston P. Warrior United Black Students Office is located on the second floor of the Shalala building. Photo credit: Treasure Wilson

Black student leaders at the University of Miami are calling for a new Black Cultural Center on the university’s Coral Gables campus. Seniors Christian Williams and Kai Anderson posted their petition for the creation of a Black Cultural Center on Change.org on March 1. The petition received more than 1,000 signatures in less than a week of being posted on the platform and has now topped 1,500 as of March 24.

“It feels good knowing that it’s something that has resonated throughout campus,” Williams, former president of Brothers Overcoming Negativity and Destruction (BOND), said. “I hope it will give students a place that they can feel welcome.”

The office of United Black Students, the largest Black organization on campus, is currently located on the second floor of the Shalala Student Center. However, Williams says that a larger physical space is more conducive to building community and establishing a safe environment for Black students on campus, especially for an organization of 659 members.

“I’m not going to say it’s a mask you have to put on, but to some extent you cannot be yourself, your authentic self. You have to navigate a world that you’re not necessarily used to or from,” Williams said. “So to create a space where I don’t have to feel like I have to put up a facade to feel like I belong is what I envision for all the Black students on our campus, and hopefully, the center will be able to help that.”

The conception of a Black Cultural Center at UM came from Donald Spivey, Special Advisor to the President on Racial Justice. President Julio Frenk appointed Spivey to the position on July 2, in accordance with the university’s racial justice initiatives following this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement.

According to Anderson, chairman of the Black Student Leadership Caucus, Spivey entrusted the two seniors with the project because he wanted the center to be inspired by and tailored toward those who would use it: students.

“He mentioned it was his dream to have a Black student center,” Anderson said. “He was firm that it needed to be a student led initiative.”

Williams and Anderson say they are on a mission to “improve the Black experience” at UM.

“There’s been a lot of disconnect especially as the university has grown,” Williams said. “Our experience as Black students at the university, we always felt that something was missing.”

Williams says that he hopes the Black Cultural Center will both bring community to the “sub-groups” of Black students on campus and give every student a means to celebrate Black culture.

“We want to provide a space for everyone to come and to be themselves,” said Anderson. “We want to make sure that everyone knows it’s not just for Black people”

Williams and Anderson are particularly concerned by UM’s Black student retention rate. They say that establishing a strong sense of community can help improve not only the retention rate of Black students, but the overall improvement of the Black experience at UM as well.

While the administration has made significant strides in improving the Black experience on campus, Williams and Anderson say that there needs to be a physical space for the Black community to thrive.

“Faculty can only do so much,” said Williams.

Williams said that providing a space in which Black students can be their authentic selves will create a stronger community among Black students at UM and will have a direct impact on improving Black student retention.

The administration provided the following statement regarding the petition: “The University of Miami welcomes student recommendations for new spaces on campus, including cultural spaces. We are committed to working with student leaders through our student governance process to assess future space needs for our student community.”

The original petition brought forth in March, had named the center after University of Miami School of Law alumni Harold Long Jr. However, the administration has since suggested that they not use Long’s name in the petition until they are given permission by his family.

Long died on Feb. 24 at 73 years-old, just two days before the petition for a Black Cultural Center was written.

Long was the first Black graduate of the University of Miami’s School of Law. On May 17, 1968, Long organized a sit-in in then-university President Henry King Stanford’s office. The sit-in demanded that the university enroll more Black students, hire Black professors, offer an African-American-history-focused curriculum taught by Black professors and increase the number of minority scholarships.

“I couldn’t think of a better testimony to his legacy,” said Williams, who suggested the building be named in Long’s honor.

Though there is question over whether or not the center can be named after Long, Anderson said that they hope to pursue the dedication with his family’s blessing if administration were to go forward with constructing the center.

Though Williams and Anderson will not be able to reap the benefits of a new Black Cultural Center, they hope that the space will have a positive impact on the many Black students who will matriculate into the university.

“We want it to be a building because we want to invest in the future,” Williams said. “Knowing that you have a safe space and bringing that energy and that happiness out of that space will ultimately help everyone to act more authentically.”