by Eshe Sherley
Micah Jones and I are standing by a foldout table at Afro-American Cultural Center, better known as the House. She is the president of the Black Student Alliance at Yale, and I am her vice president and right-hand woman. We’re selling T-shirts to alumni at the House’s forty-fifth anniversary event.
A woman, impeccably dressed, approaches us. She introduces herself as Bisa Williams. In 1975, six years after the House’s founding, Williams became the first Black woman president of BSAY since its founding in 1967. After Yale, she served as the Ambassador to Niger. As she talks to us, she looks over our last-minute display. She has an air of officiousness, but there is a warmth about her.
She buys a shirt, but before she leaves, she says, “If I had to give you any advice, it would be to make sure you graduate on time.” She explains that before she became president, not a single one of her predecessors had graduated within four years. “I was determined for that not to be me. I was getting out in four years,” she tells us. “People will try to make you do everything, but you can’t let them.”
Micah and I look at each other. Too late.
For the past two years, I have interacted with the House not only as a leader and a member, but also as a historian. These roles can’t be separated—black protest and black scholarship have long gone hand in hand. Black activism at Yale gained global attention this past semester through the March of Resilience, when students of color reminded the campus of the ways in which Yale continues to fail them. And while the activism led to important advances, it did not erase past conflicts. In my research on the House, I’ve encountered repetitive cycles of conflict—not only between the Black student body and Yale, but also within its own community.
Every BSAY board faces challenges, but the 2014–2015 board walked into an exceptionally difficult year. For four years, the Black community had been fractured under the leadership of Dean Rodney Cohen, the House’s top administrator at the time. Within months of his appointment in 2010, House managers wrote a letter to the Dean’s office about Cohen’s pattern of regularly missing staff meetings, not coming to student events, and failing to approve the undergraduate staff’s hours so that they could be paid. (Cohen could not be reached for comment for this story.)
In the words of this staff in 2010, “Dean Cohen’s performance as Director of the House has been at best, lackluster, and at worst, appalling. He has presented a pattern of inconsistency, unreliability and lack of leadership that we haven’t experienced before, driving us to seek advice and guidance elsewhere.”
When I arrived as a freshman in 2012, I saw these problems persist. I had entered into the midst of a debate that began with that letter, which in turn introduced me to alumni like Bisa Williams, who came back to the House in the fall of 2014. Their dismay at the disorganized state of the House community reopened a familiar wound. We had watched the Black student leaders before us struggle over what to do about Cohen’s tenure, and as a result, Micah and I made ousting Cohen a priority.
The previous board produced a petition asking for Cohen to be “retrained” in the spring of 2014, but there was no response from Yale College administrators Dean Mary Miller, Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry, or Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews. If administrators, two Black and one white, would not respond to communication from Black students, then it was time to stop asking and start demanding. The Yale we were contending with was no longer the gentleman’s club of the House’s founding years, but an unresponsive bureaucracy.
Since its founding in 1969, Black activism has kept the House alive. Through the leadership of Armstead Robinson ’68, Don Ogilvie ’68, and Glen DeChabert ’70 (collectively known as “the Founders”), the House, then called Afro America Inc., was established at 1195 Chapel Street. By 1970, the House moved to 211 Park St., the former Chi Psi fraternity house, and was renovated in 1971.
The BSAY board at the time had asked for a Black Cultural Center as a refuge from the pervasive whiteness of Yale life. Early in the 1969 spring term, BSAY sent President Kingman Brewster a letter demanding the founding of a BCC by September of the same year. The letter also reflected the many needs that Black students hoped the BCC would fulfill, including money for a part time coordinator of the center (approved by BSAY and the Afro American Study Group), a Black freshman counseling program, and help from the administration to obtain outside funding for social action.
In September of 1969, Black students got their BCC. Soon, they would just call it “the House.” While winning Afro America Inc. and the African American Studies Department in 1969 were hard-fought victories, they inaugurated a battle over resources—necessary to allow the space to thrive—that would continue for decades.
The University’s actions have historically starved the house of financial and human resources. Every year since its founding, the director has had to struggle to make sure the House and its many member groups have enough money to operate successfully.
In the House’s early years in the nineteen-seventies, Black students attempted to transfer their Student Activities Fee from their residential colleges to the House, as they felt unwelcome at college parties, like one with a “Klan Party” theme in 1982. When the Student Activities Fee was reconfigured, the House had to start charging membership fees to Black students and even higher fees to students who came for individual events.
Yale has also historically been stingy with resources for the physical structure of the House. In 1989, house Director Melvin Wade had to spend the beginning of the school year making sure that the University removed the last of the asbestos that had been partially dealt with in the summer. Even worse, according to Wade, the University had not brought the building up to code since 1928.
Upon returning to Yale for the thirtieth anniversary of the House in 1999, the Black alumni were mortified by the state of the building that they had worked so hard to maintain. Dean Pamela George described her first impression when she walked into the space as its new director in 2000: “It was terrible. I cried. The rats, the roaches, praying that a roach didn’t come out while we were having an event—I hope I killed the last roach. The buckets, because the roof was leaking all over the place. It was horrible.”
What happened to the roaches, the mice, and the leaking roof? The alumni got fed up. With George on board, they began a capital campaign to renovate the House. By the thirty-fifth anniversary celebration in 2004, the entire basement had been redone, an archive for the House had been established, and there was an endowment for Black student leadership development named the ORD Fund after the founders of the House: Ogilvie, Robinson, and DeChabert.
But starting in 2010, at the beginning of Dean Cohen’s term, the gains reversed. The kitchen, like in 2000, became barely useable. A large rug in the main room covered a wooden floor that needed repair. The library, which used to boast countless books about Black history and culture, was nearly empty. More importantly, the House began to empty of people, as Black students saw the House as a less welcoming place.
To make matters worse, the Yale administration decided to merge the “House directorship” position with an “assistant deanship” in the early nineteen-nineties, emphasizing the job’s connection to the Yale College Dean’s Office. This balancing act is not only taxing for the director, but also for the Black students who have to compete for the director’s time. Community building and direct interaction with Black students dropped on the list of priorities. George was one of the first directors who had to navigate the change. She commented on the risk of a director becoming isolated within the administration, away from the House and its members. “Before you know it,” she said, “something’s fallen apart.”
While Micah and I organized under Dean Cohen, figures from the House’s past took notice. In the fall of 2014, the administration told all the cultural centers that they would receive external reviews. The ears of Black alumni, who had witnessed similar processes before, immediately pricked up.
While the other directors of the three other cultural centers had notified their students about the review, Dean Cohen did not alert the House members. Upon hearing that Black students knew nothing of the University’s plans, alumna Kim Hershman ’88 sent House leaders an urgent email notifying them about the student forum portion of the review process.
After the initial open forum in November, the administration had planned two more forums in early February 2015. Micah and I decided that one of these was the moment to publicly call for Cohen’s resignation. For several weeks, we went to groups in the Black community, urging them to sign the petition for Cohen’s removal. Not everyone did. Some students were afraid that a petition was too aggressive, and others didn’t feel compelled to say anything because they knew nothing about Cohen—which, we argued, was a reflection of his absence from the House.
Ultimately, the Black Men’s Union rejected the petition, the only Black student group to do so out of the five that had connections to the majority of the House community.
We decided to confront the rift head-on. Micah met with the President of the BMU, Will Searcy ’16, and he said he understood that Dean Cohen’s conduct, which to some appeared most invested in Yale’s Black men, harmed the community. In the petition, seven women had relayed experiences of sexism with Cohen. But the general body of the BMU still voted the motion down.
Searcy said he saw rifts in attitudes toward the petition. When the BMU decided not to sign on, he said, it wasn’t out of disagreement with its organizational goals—the BMU agreed with wanting more financial transparency, clarifying the membership system, and setting up a structure to hold deans accountable. However, he said that the petition and accompanying letters against Cohen “didn’t always focus on problems with his effectiveness,” he said. “It was more of a character attack. Guys didn’t feel comfortable signing off on that because that wasn’t the experience they had with him.”
From political decisions to social settings, gender issues in the Black student body have affected the House’s activism since its founding. At a Black Women’s Coalition meeting last spring, I heard an alumna talk about being raped by a Black male student in the nineteen-seventies. She felt she couldn’t talk about it because publicizing the story would undercut the Black student movement. How many other Black women before and after her had gone through the same experience?
Sexism in the House often operates in activist spaces. From Bisa Williams to Caroline Jackson-Smith, who served on BSAY’s steering committee in the early seventies, women were often powerful, respected contributors to the activist work of Black Yale, but paternalism from male students could diminish their involvement.
In 1974, Yale senior Warrington Hudlin made a documentary called “Black at Yale.” In one scene, three Black women argue with a Black male peer. They’re standing on the first floor of the House, filling the lobby with their dispute. It’s heated on both sides, but I noticed a hint of a smirk on the man’s face when I saw the film.
He is so condescending, I thought, watching in the booth at the Yale Film Study Center. But maybe I’m just imagining it.
Hudlin then cuts to the same Black man as he speaks to another Black male student in an apartment. The second Black male student comments on the three women—he understands “them” now. They’re “crazy,” but “you have to deal with them!”
One of the women in the scene was Bisa Williams. When she took over BSAY in 1975, Williams wanted to transform the group’s “petty socializing and political romanticizing” into more disciplined political conduct. In a speech outlining these changes, Williams argued that BSAY should work to better “the mental, physical, social, and political condition of all people of African descent.” In line with that vision, she proposed fundamental changes in membership requirements for BSAY members. Upset that Williams seemed to be abdicating BSAY’s role as a social support for Black students, some members splintered off to form the Black Student Union (which ended in 1976). Williams told me she believes the split was due less to differing organizational goals and more to men finding female leadership hard to swallow.
The complex tensions between men and women in the community haven’t gone away, and they often bubble to the surface during BSAY’s annual meetings on gender, which I’ve seen turn into shouting matches. At the beginning of our term in 2014, the BSAY board billed the year’s conversation as one about gender in the Black community, rather than at Yale in general, so that dialogue might feel less fraught.
That day, people filled the Lighten Room in the basement of the House. More than twenty Black students pulled up chairs while chatting and formed a circle, music playing softly in the background. It felt normal.
Then the meeting began. For an hour, only one of the many Black men in the room spoke. The rest sat, arms crossed, refusing to open their mouths. This was not abnormal. Union members often attended BSAY meetings in order to combat claims that BMU isolated itself from other House organizations, but they rarely contributed to meetings. This silence, however, felt different. Not disinterest, but disrespect. This meeting wasn’t about the BMU. It was about Black men and women trying to begin to heal an age-old impasse. But what does it mean when the men most resistant to engage with the rest of the community are primarily BMU members?
Searcy, looking back at the meeting, said the men’s silence was not a BMU directive. Rather, he saw the meeting as “not an open dialogue.” He recalls feeling berated, and he said that his attendance was as a BSAY member rather than as a representative of the BMU.
This was the environment in which we wrote the sixty-plus-page petition, which lacked the signatures of many black men. After its delivery at the open forum in February, we waited. Weeks later, in the midst of spring break, I found out that Dean Cohen had resigned. Just like that, it was over.
On a March morning, I wake up to the sound of my phone. My room is dark.
“Are you up?”
It’s Micah. I’m late.
“Sure I am.”
I’m scrambling, searching for clothes, underwear, socks. Fuck. Several weeks after we found out Cohen had resigned, and yet things still seemed to be in shambles.
I stop dead. I was supposed to wake up early and write a speech for the Unite Yale rally today, a direct action aimed at building power among the people involved in activism surrounding the neglect of the cultural centers, mental health reform, and divesting from fossil fuels. I won’t be delivering the speech—I’ve been replaced by Eli, a Black freshman and future vice president of BSAY, because we think my active presence might be counterproductive after my visibility in removing Cohen. Eli has a test today, so the task of writing her speech has fallen to me.
Micah and I rush to the House. Sitting in the office, thinking about how to articulate the importance of our recent victory, I think again of Bisa Williams’s advice to make it out of Yale, to not do everything ourselves.
I also think of Larry Irvin—a student who almost did not graduate.
Irvin’s story begins in the spring semester of 1974, when the Yale Political Union invited William Shockley to debate Congress of Racial Equality President Roy Innis. By 1974, Shockley, a 1956 winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, had become a eugenicist and would speak on his belief that Black people were biologically inferior.
As the day of the talk approached, the Third World Coalition, led by BSAY, distributed fliers about the protest. Several hundred students crowded outside that afternoon while a group of upperclassmen and coalition leaders went inside and shouted Shockley down. Yale gave thirteen “judicial penalties” for their participation. One was BSAY moderator Larry Irvin. Yale gave the students summer suspensions.
With the immediate threat of Shockley’s inflammatory rhetoric gone, activist attention waned. When Irvin returned to school in the fall of 1974, he held several meetings in the House, but few people came. He struggled on through the semester, which prompted Yale to ask him to take the year off. When the new BSAY moderator, Bisa Williams, asked Irvin if he wanted the Black community to advocate on his behalf, he said no.
Irvin finished his degree, but a year late. He was not the only casualty of Black student action whose academic trajectory was waylaid by the consequences of their activist work. Craig Foster ’73, a key Black leader, estimated in an archived interview that of ninety-six to one hundred Black seniors in his class, only fifty-five graduated.
I do not know Irvin personally. I do not know where he is from, and most importantly, I do not know what happened to him after. But I understand him. Suddenly, I realize what the speech is about.
I scrawl it out and speed walk from the House to the basement of Bingham where Eli is waiting. We’re assembled. Two-hundred and fifty Yale students on Cross Campus in front of Sterling Memorial Library—chanting, clapping, crying. Our hand-painted signs catch what little light peeks from behind the clouds. One by one, each speaker goes up, many asking their communities to come up with them.
It’s Eli’s turn. She says:
“Just recently, I found a photo of my Dad taken by my Mom while he was here—standing somewhere on Beinecke, speaking out in front of Woodbridge Hall. It’s students like him—who in the eighties were fighting for divestment from South Africa, […] that created a legacy so that current Black Yalies could win this semester. Their energy is here right now—the Craig Fosters, the Larry Irvins, the Sylvia Boones, the Glenn DeChaberts, my mother and father. The spirit that reminds us that, as Assata said best, ‘we have the duty to fight for our people and we have the duty to win.’”
A friend of mine once told me that someone called the House a “spiritually dead place,” and I think they’re halfway right. The last five years of struggle stripped the House of its home-like feeling. Sometimes I wonder about what came out of our fight for the House. With the hiring of Dean Risë Nelson, and with the energy brought by the March of Resilience, we are beginning to rebuild.
What is left are ghosts. The House may seem drained, but I can feel spirits in every part of the House. The founders, past directors, and the undergraduate selves of people like Irvin and Williams are all still living in this space. Some of them are there to drag us back into the worst parts of our collective pasts, preventing us from moving forward. Others are there to help us along the way.
After a long absence, I happened to walk into the House before heading to a meeting. I walked downstairs, where I ran into a friend on the verge of a breakdown, sitting on the stairs and holding back tears. I put my meeting off; we talked while she cried. I couldn’t make it better, but I could sit with her.
When we walked back to the hallway, she said, almost to herself, that I happened to show up right when she needed someone. It was like my energy, lingering in the space, had summoned me there.
It was like I was already one of the ghosts.
This piece was originally published in The New Journal