Kuumba House, Birthplace of Black History Month, 1970-2019

Kuumba House - Black United Students 1st Black Culture Center 1969To the uninformed it may appear that Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month. In reality this is not the case. Negro History Week was founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1926, by February of 1969 it was sorely in need of major renovation. Black students and faculty at Kent State recognized this need and made some necessary updates to what had been a week-long celebration of Negro History, as if that was all the time our history deserved. As of the date of this article, Black History Month has been celebrated for nearly 50 years at Kent State. It all began with Black United Students’ (BUS) takeover of the Student Activity Center (SAC), on November 13, 1968.

The protest was in solidarity with the Black Panthers and their struggle to curtail police brutality in Oakland, CA. Kent State administrators had invited the Oakland police department to recruit on Kent’s main campus. The students objected to their facilities being used for the purpose of supporting one of America’s most racist police departments and the recruiters were disinvited. Before they got disinvited, a major protest happened on campus and hundreds of Black students left Kent, to attend a university in exile, in Akron, OH. They saved some of their most brutal actions for the Black Panthers and their supporters. The founders of BUS were the children of the Panthers. Even though there was no direct relationship between the Panthers and BUS were heavily influenced by their example of defiance, self-help and cultural relevancy.

The protest against the Oakland P.D. was the first of many protests that would follow, over the years. Certainly, it was one of the most memorable, Dean Milton Wilson documented the founding of BUS and America’s first Black History Month celebration, in the pages of Involvement 2 Years Later. Dean Wilson was Kent State’s chief apologist. He took on his role of apologist with a vengeance, never missing an opportunity to make and excuse for or side with the administration as they attempted to deal with their “Black problem.”

Founded in 1910 Kent State had never had such a large group of urban Black students on its campus before. With the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, MLK and Bunchy Carter, plus the ensuing riots, the students knew they were in a life and death struggle for survival on a campus that was in no way prepared to deal with demands of the students, Black or White.

What started out as a single-minded protest over police recruiters on campus became something much bigger when Kent administrators threatened to punish students who participated in the SAC protest. The students made a list of demands, one of which was the allocation of space for a Black Cultural Center, on campus. The university “gave” the students a temporary location, off of Summit Street, where the school of business stands now. It was temporary, in part, because plans were already on the books to demolish the building, in order to make way for construction of the school of business.

The students called it Kuumba House, or house of creativity, formerly known as the Ward House. When the students moved in they found it was already occupied by mice. They made the best of what was, decidedly, a bad situation. By this time the use of the word Negro had fallen into disfavor, especially among the Black youth and 1 week to celebrate Black History, while White history is celebrated for the other 51 weeks of the, just wasn’t enough. The idea of celebrating Black History Month, as opposed to Negro History Week was the inspiration of Kent’s Black students, during their last celebration of Negro History Week, in 1969. Dean Wilson leant a hand by putting the event on the university calendar for 1970.

That 1st Black History Month was memorable for a number of reasons. Looking back on it, the cast of characters was phenomenal. Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks was one of a number of poets featured over the course of the month, including Eugene Redmond; former poet laureate of the State of California, Quincy Troupe; world renowned Nigerian musician, Babatunde Olatunji. That was the first of many visits to Kent with and without his backup group, the Drums of Passion. Another Nigerian musician/philosopher, Chief Fela Sowande, was also part of the celebration. Chief Sowande later came to Kent as a visiting professor for the Institute for African American Affairs. Another notable was Jimmy Garrett, who is a Black Student Union and Black Studies pioneer from San Francisco State.

Sponsors of the event included the Institute for African American Affairs (IAAA), the Human Relations Center and the Black United Students. Out of those three original sponsors, it was the continuous support of BUS and IAAA, from 1970-1993 that put Black History Month on track to becoming the campus-wide event it is today at Kent State. The earliest national and international celebrations did not officially begin until after 1976, when President Ford publicly recognized Black History Month. As is usually the case, official recognition was late to the party. Black cultural centers, schools, churches and other national organizations took to the idea of Black History Month had already been celebrating Black History Month for 6 years.

Today, Kuumba House is no more. Three years after that first Black History Month the Black Cultural Center took over the entire ground floor of Kent’s Old Student Union and was renamed, the Center of Pan-African Culture (CPAC). Over the years CPAC has provided extensive social services; computer training and access; hosted national and international conferences; musical groups; dance troupes; art shows, dances and regularly scheduled student run theatrical productions. In spite of the fact that a new student center had been built on the opposite side of campus CPAC remained the cultural hub of Kent’s Black community.

 

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