“Black House is back”: 1914 Sheridan Rd. reopens after more than two years of renovation


Maia Pandey/Daily Senior Staffer

Two alumni embrace in front of the renovated Black House. The house reopened in a Friday ceremony attended by hundreds of community members.

Maia Pandey, Development and Recruitment Editor

In 1968, Herman Cage (Weinberg ’69, Kellogg ’73) protested with more than 100 other Northwestern students, calling for a dedicated space for Black students on campus. When the Black House was finally established, Cage said it was the first time he felt NU was addressing his “fears, loneliness and isolation” as a student.

Cage stood on the porch of 1914 Sheridan Rd. Friday and declared to more than 300 cheering NU community members that, after two years of renovation, “The Black House is back.”

Friday’s rededication ceremony opened with speeches from alumni, faculty and administrators, followed by a ribbon-cutting and reception. Several rows of seats on the lawn were reserved for members of the B100 — the group of students, including Cage, that participated in the landmark 1968 Bursar’s Office Takeover.

“The same space, the sacred space, that refuge is now available, whether you are an incoming freshman for the class of 2025 or you are a fifty-year alumni,” Cage said. “It’s yours and it’s our legacy to future generations.”

“Historical truth-telling”

After its initial closure for renovation in June 2019, the Black House reopened more than a year behind schedule due to pandemic-related delays. But the renovation has been in the works for much longer. Development on the changes began in 2016, after students protested University plans to move administrative offices into the Black House the previous year. 

Along with canceling the office restructuring, a committee including faculty, staff and alumni hosted forums in 2015 allowing community members a space to voice their concerns. These sessions led then-Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irivin to ask Julie Payne-Kirchmeier, her future successor, and Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson, current executive director of campus inclusion and community, to explore a possible renovation.

Brown-Henderson also chaired the Black House Renovation Steering Committee, which has met monthly since 2016 and saw the renovation through from beginning to end.

“This renovation has seen every challenge, including a global pandemic, so the last five years have not by any means been easy,” Brown-Henderson told The Daily. “As students have begun to experience the space, I can definitely say that it has been worth it (and) one of the most important things that I will probably do at Northwestern.”

The committee focused primarily on providing feedback on proposed renovations and gathering renovation ideas from community members, Brown-Henderson said. “Historical truth-telling” throughout the house was a priority, she added.

The entryway features four portraits of NU’s first Black students, with text underneath reading, “We’ve been here.” Further into the first floor is the “Quibbler’s Club Family Room,” named for the racially integrated and gender-inclusive student group founded in 1926 to advocate for Black students.

“Part of the historical truth-telling is to say Black students aren’t a new community to Northwestern,” Brown-Henderson said. “The first Black graduates that we know of graduated in 1883, so it’s really cementing the place that Black students — Black people — have had at Northwestern for a long time.”

Artist and former football player Dwight White (Communication ’16, Medill M.S. ’17) painted a wall-length mural for the family room, titled “Undivided Legacy.” The two flights of stairs ascending to the third floor feature pictures of Black NU students from the mid-1960s to present day, leading to the B100 wall on the top floor. 

Along with excerpts of the May 4 agreement between student protesters and administrators, the B100 wall includes a QR code that visitors can scan to visit library archives and learn more about the agreement.

B100 member Joanne Williams (Communication ’71) was among more than a dozen of the 1968 student protesters who attended the rededication. 

“We had no place to gather, no place to go (before the Black House),” Williams told The Daily. “The original house was around the corner, much smaller than this — we would sit around and talk, and you could probably get the entire population of Black students at Northwestern in that house.”

“Beautifully Black, unapologetically human”

The Black House moved in 1972 from 619 Emerson St. to its current home. Before 1966, an average of five Black students enrolled in each incoming class. In the fall of 1968, after the Bursar’s Office Takeover, the incoming class included 70 Black students.

Remembering the legacy of the takeover and the 2015 conversations about moving administrative offices into the house, Alexandria Bobbitt (SESP ’16) said serving on the Steering Committee was personally meaningful.

“To see all of the care and intentionality and perseverance that was required for this project was healing for me, as a student and as an alum,” Alexandria Bobbitt said.

Alexandria Bobbitt attended the rededication with her mother Kecia Ellis Bobbitt (McCormick ’87) and aunt, both alumnae who said the Black House was a central space during their time at NU.

Ellis Bobbitt’s husband also attended NU, and their son is a current student. With the house reopening, she said she hopes today’s Black students will feel more connected with one another.

“The Black House was truly the place that allowed us to feel love and feel like we’re at home and have energy and unity with other students,” Ellis Bobbitt said. “I hope that the reopening of the Black House will bring some of that back, and everybody will remember why it started.” 

Not having that space during the pandemic and the beginning of Fall Quarter was challenging, SESP senior Glory Aliu said. She serves as a student and coordinator of For Members Only, NU’s premier Black Student Alliance, which holds events at the Black House. Aliu said the space was a regular stop for her before the pandemic.

FMO recently held its first in-person event of the 2021-22 academic year, a “Black to School BBQ” on the Lakefill. Despite the event’s success, Aliu said it felt “strange” to gather in a more public place on campus.

“All these people were staring or were very confused as to why all these Black people were right there on the lake, or you would have people come over who were non-Black and try to infringe on this space,” Aliu said. “There’s not a lot of spaces that you feel like you can relax in a (predominately white institution) — you’re kind of wondering where you’re allowed to exist.”

Jazzy Johnson (Communication ’13), who served on the Steering Committee, encouraged Friday’s crowd to remember the Black community members who fought for the “refuge” of the Black House before it was even created.

The house is both a piece of history and a promise to current and future Black students, Johnson added.

“(At Northwestern), you will be developed academically and professionally, and you will continue to resist and challenge this institution,” Johnson said, “but in this pure place, may you be beautifully Black and unapologetically human.”

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Twitter: @maiapandey

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