The ALANA Center (1993)
Jeh Vincent Johnson
The precursor to Vassar’s main organization for resources and programs to support students of color, what is now the ALANA Center, was once located in the basement of Lathrop House, a residence hall. The Center, however, introduced an integral—and, from its present location, visible—addition to the college’s campus life. In addition to fostering leadership programs and intra-cultural and cross-cultural dialogues, the Center now also hosts lectures and events, and provides a gathering space for other student organizations with interests of supporting students of color. Whether known for its annual ALANA Festivals, book club meetings, lectures commemorating Black History Month, or any of its other rich and varied programming, the Center became a unique element in the college community.
The Center’s origins can be traced to the establishment in 1969 of the Afro-American Cultural Center in Kendrick House. Originally, in 1927, a residence for woman faculty members, the three-story building was affectionately known as “The House.” The Cultural Center also housed a predominantly Black dormitory, but the sensed needs were not all met.
In God Spare Life: An Autobiography, Claudia Lynn Thomas ‘71, the founding President in 1967, of the Students’ Afro-American Society (SAS), declares the organization was founded to support the students of color’s reaction to Vassar’s “void of Black culture.” One of six Black students in her class of four hundred, Thomas, recalls “at times” feeling “invisible.” Among the society’s initial demands were the establishment of an all-Black dormitory, a Black Studies program, and the increased hiring of tenured Black faculty. In addition to the Cultural Center, in the spring of 1969, the college leased a storefront in downtown Poughkeepsie to serve as an Urban Center for Black Studies, where city residents could visit and audit courses that took place in the evenings. Despite these efforts, Thomas’s organization deplored the lack of permanent social change, such as the purely “experimental” maintenance status of Kendrick House and the poor funding for the nascent Black Studies program. When SAS released a list of nine “demands,” again including accreditation of the Black Studies program as a major, funding for Black faculty, increased recruitment of students of color, and a permanent commitment to Black housing on campus, the students led a demonstration on Raymond Avenue that threatened a take-over of the college’s Main Building.
On October 30, 1969, thirty-four Black female members of SAS occupied the administrative offices on the ground floor of Main Building for three days. Against the backdrop of the Civil Rights and National Black Student Movements, the protests drew national attention, and The New York Times reported that “judging by their applause for speakers, most of the 300 students who attended the rally seemed in sympathy.” And the day after the sit-in began, the Miscellany News declared that “What must be done . . . is to make the Black Studies program a permanent and expanded one, for it is both a relevant and necessary facet of college education at Vassar or any other institution.”
After a series of negotiations, President Alan Simpson offered a settlement that met each demand. Exhausted and relieved the students left their posts, as described in God Spare Life:
“We pried the nails free and removed the planks, liberating the cherry. The tremendous doors whined as they pivoted on their axes, and the sun’s radiance burst through. . . . Once adapted to the brilliance of the outdoors, thirty-four weary women marched, heads held high, through the wooden portal to the ovation of on-lookers. We left behind an arrangement of daisies on the switchboard operator’s desk, standing tall in a Coca-Cola bottle.”
On November 6, 1970, a committee comprised of trustees, faculty and student members issued the Catlin Report which stated that “separate housing is an option which must be open to Black students coming to Vassar, as a means whereby pluralism can strengthen the common community.” The new Vassar Black Studies Program became a national model for other universities and colleges, and Kendrick House served as a cultural center and a primarily Black dormitory housing at one point up to 32 Black students.
In 1974, however, the New York State Board of Regents ruled that the center was a form of racial segregation, violating a state law forbidding exclusion on the basis of race. Vassar initially maintained its position that the house, not exclusively designated for Black students, functioned under the “free-choice housing system” of self-selection. Faced, however, with the possible revocation of state funds and even, possibly, its charter, the college was forced to comply with the ruling. Kendrick House was converted from the Afro-American Cultural Center to faculty housing. As the dormitory was disbanded in 1975, the Urban Center for Black Studies maintained its function as a cultural center. In 1976, the college established an Intercultural Center in the basement of Lathrop House, one of the quadrangle dormitories. The Center was a meeting space for various groups including the Asian Students’ Alliance (ASA), the Student Alliance of Latino and Spanish Americans (SALSA), the Black Student Union (BSU), and the Vassar Jewish Union (VJU).
By the early ‘80s, as the college’s population of students of color had increased, more students sought the development of a larger, more active cultural center. In The Miscellany News, the ASA President, Brian Yoon (‘92), declared, “It says a lot to minority students about the way we’re seen, that we’re put in a basement.” Yoon called for a permanent space recognizing that the students “do have a separate heritage, and that [they] are worthy of having something above ground and on campus.” A Coalition of Concerned Students responded with a request for the establishment of a new Intercultural Center, and a Black Student Center.
Pending the construction of a permanent facility the Intercultural Center was temporarily moved to the Blegen House on Collegeview Avenue. The next year, plans were approved to convert and add to the former coal storage building both a larger Intercultural Center and the dramatic theatre much needed by student organizations and occasional faculty members. Construction was completed in 1993 of a new Intercultural Center and a new student theater, both designed by Jeh Vincent Johnson, a pioneering African American architect and Senior Lecturer in the art department at Vassar from 1964 until his retirement in 2001. Johnson consulted student leaders and then-Director of Multicultural Affairs Edward Pittman ’82 during the architectural planning process. The Center is located between the Powerhouse Theater and the Doubleday Art Studio.
In 1998, the Intercultural Center was renamed the ALANA Center, an acronym more explicit in its inclusion of African-American/Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native American students. Then the center’s Director Ed Pittman noted to The Miscellany News that the change more accurately reflected the Center as “culture-specific,” a site “where students of color can meet to have the opportunity to express themselves within a secure environment.” And it has proved to be exactly, and permanently, that.
The center was renamed once again in 2021, this time in honor of its designer and his contributions to the creation of the space. The late Jeh Johnson passed away in January of the same year at the age of 89. Announcing the new title at the African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College (AAAVC) Triennial—an event which recognizes the contributions of the African American Vassar community, alumni, faculty, and staff—President Elizabeth Bradley noted that “throughout his nearly four decades at Vassar, Professor Johnson had enormous impact on our campus, the field of architecture, and even national policy.” Indeed, Johnson had been tasked by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 to serve on the National Commission on Urban Problems. One of his students who would go on to earn a fellowship in the prestigious American Institute of Architects (AIA), Karen Van Lengen ’73, praised his belief “that exemplary planning and architecture were agents for social and cultural engagement and the betterment of all in our society.” President Bradley remarked that in the design of the center, “he took what was originally built as a coal bin for the Powerhouse Theatre building and transformed it into a place of community.” The Jeh Vincent Johnson ALANA Cultural Center is the first building at Vassar named for an African American.
Peterson, Iver. “Vassar to Close All-Black Dormitory.” The New York Times. December 14, 1974.
Schaye, Kimberly. “Vassar to Rename Cultural Center Building.” Vassar College Stories. April 12, 2021.
Schumach, Murray. “35 Negro Girls Seize Part of a Building at Vassar and Sit In.” The New York Times. October 31, 1969.
The Miscellany News
The Vassar Alumnae Quarterly
Thomas, Claudia Lynn. God Spare Life. WME Books, 2006.
Excerpt found in the VCEncyclopedia