Long before it was formally established, the African-American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago (AACC) served as a catalyst for activism, artistry and scholarly analysis of Black diaspora experiences. Established as a result of decades of campus and community advocacy and activism, in 2016 the AACC will mark its 25th anniversary through a retrospective exhibition series curated by AACC staff, and an oral history project supervised by AACC director Dr. Lori Barcliff Baptista. Anchored by rigorous engagements with the Center’s archive and stakeholders, this project invites campus and community partners to participate in the labor of reflecting upon the desires, narratives, programs, practices and historic events that have influenced the scope of work of the Center to date, with an eye towards future endeavors.
The AACC Visiting Artists’ Series was the Center’s longest running program. Launched under the Center’s second interim director Harvette Gray, the first documented exhibit of the Series featured the works of Nigerian Artist/UIC student Sakius Adewale in Lecture Center E-2, the Center’s first on-campus location. More than 2000 visitors viewed the exhibit, which opened on May 20, 1991 and ran through February 3,1992. Over the course of the next 20 years, the series grew to feature the work of more than 150 artists under the leadership of Phillip M. Royster, PhD, who directed the AACC from 1991-2011.
Royster, a tenured faculty member in UIC’s African-American Studies and English departments was an established artist in his own right. A well-known master drummer, he recognized the unique potential of connecting artists from Chicago’s Black arts community to the Center’s mission of exploring and promoting African-American creative and cultural traditions, the African ancestral roots of these traditions, and the influence of these traditions and trends throughout the diaspora and on other ethnic cultures.
Current director Lori Barcliff Baptista, PhD has expanded the scope of the Center’s work by mapping exhibits to IL K-12 learning standards for Fine Arts and mobilizing stakeholders, and campus and wider Chicago communities through workshops with visiting artists.
Activism, advocacy and art have always been at the heart of the African-American Cultural Center.
Black cultural centers began to be established on the campuses of predominantly white institutions as a result of the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist social movements during the 1960’s and 70’s as counterparts to Black Studies academic departments. While not formally established until 1990-91, the African-American Cultural Center at UIC was first proposed to University administrators during the 1960’s as a part of the proposal for the establishment of a Black Studies program, which was established by the late Professor Grace Sims Holt in 1974. Several generations of her students played significant roles in the creation, as did the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Blacks (CCSB) of the 1970s and 1980s, many of whom were deeply rooted and grounded in the intellectual, creative, and activist resources of Black Chicago. Student demonstrations during the late 1980s provided the necessary momentum to further an agenda at UIC that had been forming among staff and faculty, as well as students, for at least 30 years.