The Association for Black Culture Centers, known as ABCC, gathered for its first annual conference in 1989 at Knox College, a liberal arts school in the small Illinois city of Galesburg. For its 25th anniversary conference, ABCC members assembled last week at a downtown hotel in Boston, this time hosted by rising Northeastern University.
Dr. Fred Hord, the association’s founder and executive director, recalled the keynote speakers at the inaugural conference were poets Haki Madhubuti and Mari Evans and Dr. Asa Hilliard, the late Afrocentric scholar. Charter members were Knox College and Ohio State, Purdue, Kent State and West Virginia universities.
Madhubuti, now retired from academia, was back as a keynote speaker. The 115 people who registered came from about two dozen institutions, according to the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute at Northeastern.
Other keynote speakers included Dr. Khalil Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; Lani Guinier, a Harvard Law School professor; and Dr. J. Keith Motley, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston.
When Northeastern hosted the third conference in 1993, Motley was director of the African-American Institute there. Dr. Richard L. O’Bryant currently directs the institute, renamed for his father, who was a Northeastern vice president.
Hord said ABCC has come to be seen as being for universities and wants to attract more liberal arts and community colleges to its membership. It is also reaching out to HBCUs.
But the association, Hord said, has had difficulty drawing institutional members from prestigious schools even though one of this year’s keynote speakers, Guinier, is at Harvard, and another is at the University of Chicago, Dr. Cathy Cohen, chair of its political science department.
Hord remembering talking “years ago” with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. about Harvard, with its Du Bois Research Institute, becoming an ABCC member. He said Gates responded: “Brother, we don’t do that cultural center stuff. We do academics.” A similar response has come recently from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hord said.
From another prestigious institution down the street from Harvard, MIT, Dr. Topper Carew presented at a session on “Incorporating STEM in Culture Center Programming.” The issue of increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics was not yet in vogue at the time of ABCC’s first conference.
“I see technology as a new civil rights struggle,” said Carew, visiting researcher/scholar at the MIT Media Lab. “I think coding should be like reading. Coding is the new reading and I think it’s achievable.”
Carew, a filmmaker and architect, leads a group called Techquity at MIT’s Media Lab. He predicted the creativity and improvisation that developed Black music from field hollers to compositions of Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis would thrust African-Americans into leading technology innovators.
His Techquity group has launched innovation centers at four HBCUs: Spelman and Morehouse colleges, and Hampton and North Carolina Central universities. The group recently held a hackathon at North Carolina Central University.
Carew has reached deeper into the educational system, as Techquity builds computer labs in Harlem in New York City and Oakland, California, for 100 eighth graders in each place. His group will follow the students through the eighth grade and pay for their college educations in a concerted effort to graduate them as computer scientists.
“We will be in this space in a big way,” Carew said, referring to African-Americans. “I am absolutely and completely convinced that there will be a change and that we will be major contributors and stars in technology … due to the spirit of our DNA.”