In the early morning hours of Feb. 21, 1969, an all-male group of black students occupied Fisk Hall by blocking all office doors and refusing entry to all non-blacks.
“We blaspheme and decry that education which is consonant with one cultural frame of reference to the exclusion of all others,” the occupiers announced in their public statement.
The students, the University’s first admitted African Americans and part of the 1969 Vanguard class, were reacting to the administration’s decision not to suspend normal University activity in observation of the anniversary of Malcolm X’s death.
As a condition of their leaving Fisk, which they occupied peacefully and without vandalism, the occupiers demanded that the administration establish support, academic programs, and centers specifically for black students. The Malcolm X House was one of those centers. Recently, the current residents of the house revisited its founding and its original mission as part of a campaign to reengage with the larger campus community.
According to Andrea Kelly, the Program and Events Coordinator for the Office of Admission and the House’s staff adviser, the new initiative arose from concerns about public perception of the house.
“One of the things I noticed at the end of last year was an issue in recruiting,” Kelly said. “One of the issues is the misconception of the Malcolm X House, how people think about it, and what its mission statement is.”
Kelly acknowledged that the Malcolm X House is commonly thought of as a solely African-American program house, but that’s simply incorrect. The student house manager, Randy Arthur ’15, said the goals of the house are clearly set down in documents dating back to its establishment.
“If you look at the mission statement, it doesn’t say the house is for black people or people of a certain race,” Arthur said. “It’s just a safe space where people can come and recognize and celebrate the culture of the African Diaspora.”
When the University originally distributed the Vanguard class for housing, the black students complained about being separated from one other.
“They felt oppressed,” Arthur said. “They felt it was a social experiment for the non-black students to learn about black people.”
Through its mission statement, the Malcolm X House set out to provide a safe space for not only students of color but for all interested students by “stressing the importance of togetherness while respecting each other’s diverse backgrounds.”
The large size of Malcolm X House—it has a 25-student capacity—sets it apart from other program houses, as does the fact that its residents come from many different racial backgrounds.
“[Previously] you didn’t have students who weren’t of color active in the Malcolm X House,” Kelly said. “That has changed.”
In order to encourage people to fill its over two dozen rooms, historically a difficult task, the Malcolm X House began creating and promoting new and consciously inclusive programs for its residents and the rest of the campus.
Beginning with the Students of Color Welcome Back Barbecue, the Malcolm X House began this year by aiming to highlight its values and inform the broader community. After all, Kelly said, a student would never apply to live in a place about which he or she knew nothing.
Both Kelly and Arthur said this year’s barbecue was the most successful one that the House has hosted.
“You had people from all kinds of backgrounds who had never gone over there,” Kelly said.
The main reason for the great variety and size of the crowd was the house’s collaboration with other school groups. According to Kelly, the House will continue to work with additional organizations for its events in the future to include people who previously hadn’t interacted with the Malcolm X House.
The House plans to involve itself in the University’s annual Fast-A-Thon, which benefits the Amazing Grace food pantry, as well as in Public Safety’s Rape Aggression Defense program. Beginning with the Breast Cancer Awareness Dinner on Oct. 25, the Malcolm X House is embracing a process it had formerly neglected: advertising.
“In previous years, the House was in the shadows,” Arthur said. “You didn’t hear about Malcolm X House doing things on campus.”
Arthur aims to change that, too. While news of the SOC barbecue spread solely by word of mouth and on Facebook, the House set up a table in Usdan for the dinner and sold bracelets and pins.
“We’re trying to learn from our mistakes,” Arthur said.
For Kelly, that also means reminding people of the Malcolm X House’s rich history. Through projects aimed at redecorating its library and lounge, hosting an open house, and eventually making its multi-purpose room available for outside use through EMS, the Malcolm X House wishes to remind students of the legacy of Malcolm X and of the Vanguard class.
By hosting its co-programmed activities in its multipurpose room, the Malcolm X House hopes to increase the exposure of both its name and its facilities.
An upcoming event called Red Flag Open Mic is being co-programmed by the Malcom X House and will focus on relationships and sexual violence. The event will include time for participants to write and perform, as well as free food—all advertised through Facebook.
“Our goal is to create a space where free expression is encouraged,” said Sexual Violence Action Committee (SVAC) Coordinator Rachel Verner ’15.
While Arthur emphasized that the house is not simply a place for Students of Color, the residents still want to maintain ties with that community. The goal is to rekindle interest from the entire student body in the house and in its original purpose.
Arthur said that the Malcolm X House’s image issues are mostly of its own doing and that the House has gone through both positive and problematic periods with regard to its relationship to the Wesleyan community.
“Right now, we’re in one of those periods where it’s not so great,” Arthur said. “And I’m trying to turn that around.”