Neil Williams today and as he looked in UNC's 1982-83 yearbook. Related: Photos from the cultural center's anniversary celebration.
As UNC's Marcus Garvey Cultural Center celebrated its 30th anniversary Feb. 15, one of its co-founders, who couldn't attend the event, shared some memories from his time on campus.
Before the center opened on Feb. 1, 1983, Neil Williams, now a retired Air Force captain and successful author living in Florida, was a Black Studies major and president of the Black Student Union.
In a telephone interview, Williams said that his primary hope for the center was that it might improve the quality of campus life for African-American students.
At the time, he and other BSU members were concerned that there were no African-American administrators to promote minority welfare, and Black Studies, Anthropology and Women's Studies seemed to be underfunded and understaffed programs without department affiliations.
The creation of the center helped those programs gain the support they needed to become academic departments and acquire more funding, he said.
But Williams and the BSU weren't working alone. There were many groups who supported the idea.
"We were getting support not only from African-Americans, but from the Greeley community, other student unions and the faculty," Williams said. "It was a great time and place in my life to be able to assist."
Williams said that while working to create the center, he became close with many of his mentors, including then-President Robert Dickeson, who Williams credits as a co-founder of the cultural center.
"When I walked at graduation, Mr. Dickeson, instead of just handing me my degree, pulled me and gave me a much needed hug," Williams said.
Williams and Dickeson both spoke at the dedication ceremony for cultural center, as did Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, who gave the keynote address.
According to a Feb. 2, 1983, news story about the ceremony, after the BSU's vice president made critical remarks about UNC and its administration, "Seale broke the tension by referring to his former outlaw Status as a hunted Black Panther, saying ‘Most of you did not know I was living in Denver in 1974, 1975 and 1976. That's because I did not want you to know.'"
Seale ended the ceremony on a positive note, talking about Marcus Garvey and his role in representing "black people's historic resistance to racist oppression" and the importance of centers like the newly established one named in Garvey's honor.
Thirty years later, the center's anniversary celebration exemplified the foundations it was built upon - to provide academic and cultural support, help students achieve their educational goals and to serve as a home away from home for UNC students of different ethnic, racial or geographic backgrounds.
Speakers during the celebration included Ty'Ray Thompson, director of the center; UNC President Kay Norton; Anita Fleming-Rife, special assistant to Norton for equity and diversity; several students and former Denver mayor Wellington Webb.
For Thompson and the students, the Garvey Center serves as a place where people can grow as leaders, support one another, give back to the community and more. For Webb, who earned both his bachelor's and master's degree from UNC before the center opened, it helps provide a basic understanding of people.
"Everyone has something to give," Webb said in his keynote address. "What's most important is the legacy we, as individuals, leave behind. Never lose sight of that goal."
A gift from Wellington and his wife, Wilma, will fund an annual scholarship for an African-American student with financial need and a commitment to community service.
Fleming-Rife echoed Webb in her closing comments.
"Your job here at UNC is to succeed in acquiring an education," she told the audience. "An education opens up doors of opportunity for you; and as you receive, don't forget to look back at your alma mater, and lift as you climb."
For more information about the Marcus Garvey Cultural Center, visit its website.
- Jaidree Braddix and Katie Owston, Senior Journalism Majors
- Even though the center didn't exist when they were attending UNC, alumnae Gayle Hamlett and Celeta Houston, childhood friends who attended UNC together and remain close friends, made a point of attending the anniversary celebration. The two, who earned their bachelor's degrees in 1965 and their master's degrees in 1968, are volunteering their time to develop an alumni mentoring program for African-American students.
- According to enrollment records, in 1983 fewer than 200 UNC students self-identified as African-American. During the 2012 fall semester, the figure was slightly more than 400.
- When it opened in 1983, the Marcus Garvey Cultural Center was in the Weber House, which was located on the current site of the parking lot on the corner of 20th Street and 10th Avenue, diagonally across from its current home in the Davis House.