A panel in the center of “Black at Carleton” describes the exhibit as “a tribute to those who came before us and the legacy they left behind.”
Delving into the exhibition reveals the lasting impact of this legacy. Beyond the students’ huge lapels and baggy pants, the exhibit’s snapshot of black student life in the 1960s and 1970s will feel familiar to students today. Students hung out and studied at Black House, organized and wrote letters to the administration, and participated in literary magazines and dance companies. But as the exhibit shows, these are spaces that black students once had to fight for.
Located in Upper Sayles throughout February, ‘Black at Carleton’ is a collaboration between the Office of Student Activities (SAO) and the Office of Intercultural Living (OIL) that began as an art history project by Jevon Robinson, a senior from New York. After learning that Carleton’s first multicultural house had been established at Hill House in the 1960s, Robinson went to the archives to see what house records were available. “There were photos of black students themselves in space, and it’s really rare to see those images in the archives,” he said. From there, Robinson presented the photos to OIL Director Renee Faulkner, who began exploring the idea of creating an exhibit for Black History Month.
“It started with Black House, but then we found a lot of great shots from Ebony II, which was the black dance company,” Faulkner said. “Everything, we took it from the archives.”
Tom Lamb, one of two university archivists, worked with Faulkner and his team of students, who he says spent many hours poring over the documents.
“We tried to find interesting things, but we also told low-key stories about what was happening at the time,” Faulkner said.
One such story is the organization of black students on campus. On display are several documents from SOUL, the black student organization on campus at the time, such as internal memos and correspondence with President John Nason. Much of the organizing centered around Carleton’s promise to increase the black student population to 10%.
“The College had made those promises, but black students didn’t feel like there was enough progress,” Faulkner said. “They had a list of demands, there were organized protests, organized rallies, petitions. And it succeeded to some extent. There had been no black admissions officers, and then there were. There had been no Africana or Black Studies program, and then there had been. So the organization they did at that time paid off in many ways that we still benefit from today.
Faulkner and Robinson connected the organization of SOUL to recent campus activism, particularly the Ujamaa collective and Carls Talk Back.
“Black students organized, they came together around common concerns, and they made those concerns known, and they stayed loyal until they saw action, which is very similar to what we let’s see now with the Ujamaa collective,” Faulkner said. .
The student organization also helped establish Black House. In the mid-1960s, black students applied to Residential Life for a black interest house, which was approved. “But President Nason wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea at the time, and you can tell by the tone of the correspondence,” Robinson said.
Quickly, Black House became an institution on the Carleton campus. In a 1973 Carletonian article, a resident of Black House described the house as: “a place where we can meet, discuss and, through unity, find a ‘purpose’ and identity on a campus predominantly white.”
“It is interesting to consider [Black House] in conjunction with the next housing plan,” added Robinson. “They are about to build new cultural spaces, and [the exhibit] adds to the reasoning and context behind the plan.
Beyond organization, the creative outlets of black students of the time also left a great legacy. Several photos show performances of Ebony II, which later became Synchrony II, Carleton’s largest dance group.
“At the time, it was a way to create space for black students,” Robinson said. “Nowadays when we do campus tours you don’t really hear about things that cater to black students, which is good, but at the same time there are a few things that exist today . [like Synchrony] which had a completely different context.
In addition to its rich content, the exhibit provided a meaningful way for current black students to connect with alumni.
“Black students seek that insight and perspective from those who came before them,” Faulkner said. “What is this place and what does it mean to me?”
Robinson described a recent meeting with Toni Carter ’75, a Ramsey County commissioner who presented Carleton’s summons speech earlier this month.
“We were watching the exhibit, and she was like, ‘I think that’s me!'” Robinson said. “Then I showed her the rest of the photos on my laptop, and she pointed to herself, and said the names of the people and if they were still alive. I didn’t even know she was on. photos before the call.
Faulkner noted that plans are underway to create a virtual version of the exhibit, which alumni can access.
“We get a lot of requests from people who aren’t nearby and can’t come see it,” she said. “I think it will be great because you can see the exhibit in its space and click on it and see the things that we couldn’t physically fit into the space. And if people look at it, I hope they can help us identify who is in the photos.
Lamb also said he plans to solicit records from the Multicultural Alumni Network, which will meet on campus this fall.
Next term, the Black House archives will be included in a larger exhibit on the history of the Carleton campus. “Imagined Futures, Forgotten Pasts” will be available at the Perlman Teaching Museum beginning April 1.
For Faulkner, she hopes to continue finding creative ways to highlight the experiences of people of color.
“There are lessons to be learned,” she said. “With opportunities like this, you can look to the past and see what’s been effective, whether it’s protest tactics or how black students have been able to create their own space and create a sense of of belonging.”