This undated archival photo shows 15 students posing for a photograph outside of the Black Cultural Center (BCC).
This undated archival photo shows 15 students posing for a photograph outside of the Black Cultural Center (BCC).
Contributed by Grinnell College Archives

History Takeover: Black Pride at the BCC

When Grinnell students refer to “The House,” they summon a rich and intricate history that lies beneath the Conney M. Kimbo Black Cultural Center (BCC). Today, the BCC continues to serve as a testament to Grinnell students’ commitment to civil rights and social justice, while remaining an important landmark for Black students.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, colleges across the United States experienced the rise of the “Black Power” movement, as students organized and protested higher education in the name of diversity and the reimagination of Black students’ presence on campuses. Grinnell College was among them. Following Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to the College in the fall of 1967, Black students were inspired to form the Concerned Black Students (CBS) organization.

The CBS’s request for the BCC was fulfilled in 1969 by the Board of Trustees. The BCC is named in honor of Conney M. Kimbo, an American educator and leader in multicultural affairs and Black culture, who served as dean of student affairs at the College from 1970 to 1973.

Reem Elamin `27, historian at the Black Student Union (BSU), affectionately recalled the first time she stepped foot in the BCC. She said, “When I first entered the BCC, the first thing that caught my eye was the traditional Black art history pieces. It was nice to see a different kind of architecture at Grinnell.”  

Elamin added, “I like how we can cook there and use it as our own space, have get-togethers like movie nights. That’s where I meet other Black people and connect with people outside my year.” 

Many of the historical achievements for Black students on campus resulted from a long legacy of campus activism and protest. On Monday, Nov. 29th, 1971, from 7:15 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Black students chained the doors to Burling Library and locked themselves inside. No one was allowed in or out, except for the administration, whose offices were previously located in the Burling basement. 

Chris Jones, special collections librarian and archivist, said, “While I’m not a Grinnell alum, I’m particularly proud of that sit-in because of how effective it was, and it was the easiest possible thing to garner attention.”

In the fall of 1971, CBS presented former President Glenn Leggett with a “Black manifesto,” a list of 10 demands crafted to improve campus life for Black students and faculty members. 

A few of the demands in the manifesto included, “the establishment of a Black community with no less than 200 representatives taken from all walks of life,” “the immediate institution of a Black studies major,” “a house large enough to accommodate the programs of CBS” and “the institution of a Black library with all audio-visual equipment that will aid in the academic survival of all Black students.” 

Students in Herrick Chapel for the Black Cultural Center (BCC) Dedication.

Jones highlighted that the Black Library began construction almost immediately and was established officially in 1972. Located on the south side of the 2nd floor of Burling, the library consists of books and other selected materials relating to Black culture. While the Black Studies major was instituted in the 1972-1973 school year, its career ended by 1980, as fewer than 10 students declared Black Studies as their major. Presently, the College is looking to revive the program. 

On April 16th, 2019, the BCC dedicated its Black Women’s Library to Edith Renfrow Smith `37.  

The BCC is currently in the process of renovation — in the works are an accessible bathroom, salon chair, and extended outdoor patio. Kyla Miller `25 said, “Will Reyes, he’s a third year — he’s in New Zealand now, but he’s supposed to be taking over the barber that used to come every week.” 

Throughout Black History Month, the BCC is hosting a variety of events for Black students to come together and celebrate Black voices. Bucksbaum Center for the Arts will host the Black Showcase, featuring visual and performing Black student artists, on Thursday, Feb. 29th from 7 to 9 p.m.

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