On February 14, 1969, a group of black students submitted a list of demands to University of Illinois Chancellor Jack Peltason calling for the end of institutional racism. One of the demands called for the immediate establishment of a black cultural center large enough to serve the needs of black students and the community. On February 18, 1969 the UC Senate Council recommended that a temporary center be established and placed under the supervision of Clarence Shelley, the Director of the Special Education Opportunities Program. Shortly thereafter a faculty student commission was established consisting of three units, academic, cultural and community. In the Fall of 1969 the Afro-American Cultural Program opened its doors.
From the outset, the Program was conceived to be grass roots oriented with community input and outreach. The program had two major goals: to encourage within Black students of the university a sense of pride and dignity based on their cultural heritage and to create a safe place for students to develop themselves individually and collectively; secondly, to create within the university a place where the campus could learn about the contributions of Black citizens to the campus and larger national culture. This same two-fold mission is relevant today and continues to drive our work on behalf of students.
In 2004, the African American Cultural Center was rededicated in the name of former Director Bruce D. Nesbitt. Mr. Nesbitt was a trailblazer for opportunity and equality who inspired and guided more than two decades of University students and his legacy is another part of the Center’s “fabric”. Annual programs, campus and community collaborations, and student workshops are the main vehicles through which the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center (BNAACC) does its work. Historically, we have coordinated MAAFA Remembrance Week, which focused on the struggles of African Americans beginning with the Atlantic slave trade; Martin Luther King, Jr. commemorations, which coordinates an annual series of programs encouraging the campus and community to revisit Dr. King’s vision of a Beloved Community; Black History Month festivities, designed to inform the entire campus of the contributions of black Americans; Moms Day activities featuring a “Mom of the Year” contest and the Black Chorus annual concert; and the Black Congratulatory ceremonies honoring graduating students and their families. Student workshops and seminars have included: choral ensembles, instrumental music ensembles, dance and theatrical ensembles, gender-specific programming, photography and lectures on various Black -oriented issues. Currently, BNAACC is exploring initiatives that tie-in with the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and programming focused on the retention of African American students at Illinois.