Celebrating 40 Years: OSU’s Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center

Black Student Union President Bobby Hill and Oregon State University President Robert MacVicar cut the ribbon for the new Black Cultural Center on April 26th, 1975 (Oregon Stater, June 1975, vol. 9 no.4)

On April 15, 2015, Oregon State celebrated the grand opening of the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center, just 11 days prior to the 40th anniversary of the original ribbon cutting in 1975. Although built on the same ground as the previous cultural center, much has changed for both the building and the Black Student Union which created the original center. The origins of the cultural center are themselves not free from strife, and as their website says, it came about in the “same way as many Cultural Centers around the country; through student protests, sacrifice, relentless determination, and struggle” (BCC Website). In the late 60’s the Black Student Union was threatening to leave Oregon State due to acts of discrimination and many students were boycotting classes and sporting events. In 1970, the university established the Office of Minority Affairs, and in 1975, the Black Cultural Center officially opened (BCC Website). The creation of the Black Cultural Center followed that of the Native American Longhouse in 1971, and came right before that of the Hispanic Cultural Center in 1976 (now called the Centro Cultural César Chávez). In 1991 the creation of the Asian & Pacific Cultural Center resulted in four of the seven cultural resource centers that exist on campus today.

Black Cultural Center in 1978 (The Beaver 1978)

The grand opening of the Black Cultural Center was the culmination of efforts by the Black Student Union and funding provided by the Associated Students body as well as the Alumni Center and the Corvallis Community. The center sought to promote the retention of African-American students by providing facilities, events, services and opportunities that would help students feel comfortable and be successful. The building was also an opportunity for other people to learn about African-American culture (The Beaver 2000). In 1991, the Assistant Coordinator for the Black Cultural Center, Donald Pendleton Jr., said that while the center was originally constructed to help students feel comfortable, as the number of students, including minorities, had increased, the center began to diversify and cater towards more students who were not African-American but wanted to see the center and learn about its ideas (The Beaver 1991). Jason Dorsette, Associate Director – Cultural Resource Centers, characterized the cultural centers as “educational learning labs for everyone to learn about…black America,” and the ways it has tied into the “larger society.” He stressed the importance of the centers in allowing people to learn about each other’s cultures. Dorsette also noted that cultural centers like the Black Cultural Center are open to anyone, even if the agenda and events within them is representative of the population group it’s connected to.

Kwanza preparations in the Black Cultural Center, 2000 (The Beaver 2000)

Even after the ribbon-cutting had taken place, things were not easy for the Black Cultural Center. In 1976, a cross was burned in front of the cultural center in what the culprits would later confess was a “prank which got out of hand,” but African-American campus leaders asked for leniency towards the culprits after meeting with them (The Beaver 1977). In the fall of 1991 racial tension led to the temporary closing of the Black Cultural Center which opened up later that same year. The center persevered and in 1999 it renamed itself to the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center after the first director of the Educational Opportunities Program who helped “increase recruitment and retention of black students at OSU” (BCC Grand Opening). Racial episodes still persist today and in those times the role of the center can change. Mr. Dorsette noted that in cases both local and global of racial hostility or discrimination the centers transform into “spaces of dialogue,” that allow the discussion of difficult topics that “we as a collective community try to troubleshoot and unpack and understand some of these issues that are just not fair, not right, just plain wrong.” He also mentioned that through Oregon State Administration there was an opportunity to strategize and try to figure out the problems that existed, the solutions that could be reached and the necessary steps to take. 

From help with funding for the first Black Cultural Center to today, there exists a close relationship between the Center and the Corvallis Community. As Dorsette explains, the community has designated spots on the cultural center’s advisory committees so that they can “serve as advisors, coaches and to help us really make the best decisions regarding programming, events and things like that.”

The Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center, 2015

In 2013, with design input from students, Oregon State announced the construction of the new Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center and center was temporarily moved to Snell Hall during the building process (Life@OSU June 4, 2013). Dorsette spoke of the renovated centers as an “additional point of pride for Oregon State University,” in showing that it can “offer up and tangibly demonstrate our commitment to diversity,” in the seven pride and cultural centers that it has, an unmatched number anywhere else in the states. Dorsette also highlighted the new center’s usefulness in research, events and even activities like barbeques and tailgating. Although visually distinct from the old building, the new cultural center is better equipped to help students and stay true to the goals of the Black Cultural Center: to allow students to feel comfortable, to give them the tools they need to be successful and to foster understanding of Black culture throughout the student body and the community at large.  

~ Christopher Russell, OMA Blog Guest Writer

To hear more Jason Dorsette’s interview, you can listen to it in its entirety via the OSU Cultural Centers Oral History Collection: Jason Dorsette Interview  

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