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Stone Center groundbreaking a long time coming

When dignitaries gather today to plunge shovels into the earth near the Bell Tower, it will mark an end and a beginning.

It is the culmination of decades of struggle, the end of an often ugly battle that at times threatened to divide campus.

With that chapter closed, many hope the disturbed soil will give way to a campus committed to racial understanding and equality.

For these reasons, the groundbreaking today for the Sonja H. Stone Black Cultural Center is a milestone in the life of the University.

And many BCC supporters say it's one that should have been reached long ago.

Harry Amana, interim director of the BCC, said students should not be ignorant about the historical significance of the groundbreaking events. "The struggle consisted of a long series of demonstrations and talks," he said. "So many alumni invested in (the BCC) both emotionally and financially."

In 1968, a group of black students stormed South Building's front steps, presenting a list of demands to then-Chancellor J. Carlyle Sitterson. They petitioned the University to change conditions on campus to help black students feel more safe.

Despite little progress with the chancellor, these students formed the Black Student Movement, which, among other goals, promoted one of the protesters' demands -- the construction of a freestanding BCC.

Since BSM members began campaigning for the center in the 1980s, the BCC has taken residence within the cramped 900 square-foot space of the Student Union.

But this was not enough for the student protesters and their supporters. Controversy reached its peak in September 1992 when black students began to protest for a freestanding facility to honor Sonja Haynes Stone.

Even after Stone's unexpected death in August 1991, her commitment to empowering the lives of those around her was an inspiration to many. For 17 years, she instructed and served as a director of the curriculum in African and Afro-American studies at UNC.

"I think to know about the BCC's history, you have to know about her dreams," Amana said.

Alumnus and former Black Awareness Council member Tim Smith said students also fought for the BCC because they believed the University didn't respect black students and didn't take their concerns seriously. "We saw the previous results and didn't want to play games." he said.

Smith said he and other students marched to then-Chancellor Paul Hardin's office and house in 1992. "We gave him an ultimatum -- if you want us to be quiet, give us a BCC by November 13."

But Smith said Hardin wasn't convinced to support the BCC until the issue became nationally known. "As long as the issue stayed on campus, things would never change," he said.

He also said celebrities including Spike Lee, Maxine Waters, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey contacted protesters to support the BCC's cause before the November deadline. "Spike Lee called us to come to a rally; we didn't have to call him," he said.

Lee came and spoke to more than 7,000 students, encouraging them to continue their struggle by whatever means necessary.

In October 1992, Hardin threw his support behind the center. Protests and rallies featuring banners with slogans such as "What do we want? BCC! When do we want it? Now!" finally were over.

And today, nine years after Hardin gave his consent for the building, construction of a freestanding BCC will begin. "All of the things (Stone) advocated for are a reality now," Amana said.

The groundbreaking ceremonies will initiate the first steps of a state-of-the-art facility containing a library, an art gallery, a media center, a performance center, seminar rooms, classrooms and a 400-seat auditorium. The BCC also plans to house the Institute of African American Research and the University's acclaimed Upward Bound program.

The total cost of the project, $9 million, was met by contributions, pledges, a chancellor's discretionary fund, private donations and sponsored fund-raising programs.

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Today's ceremonies will include performances from Opeyo! Dancers, Ebony Onyx Readers Theater and UNC's Gospel Choir, speeches from Harry Amana, Rev. Manley and Fred Motley and a tribute to Stone, the legendary namesake of the freestanding building.

While the construction of the BCC is the end of an ongoing struggle, many supporters say it is just the beginning.

Kelly Navies, Communiversity program coordinator of the BCC, said the groundbreaking is the first phase of a new beginning for the BCC. "(The groundbreaking) signals a turning point in the history of the University," she said. "(The BCC) will be a representative model for other black cultural centers nationwide."

Navies also said she believes the center will open the door for the recognition and acknowledgment of blacks on campus.

Outgoing BSM President Tyra Moore, who also serves on the BCC advisory committee, said the new facility will provide people with an opportunity to further their knowledge about an often overlooked culture -- black culture.

"Although I have come at the tail end of the struggle, I definitely think the BCC is a good avenue for black culture," she said. "It allows people to step outside of their comfort zones."

Besides personal experiences and memories the groundbreaking ceremonies will invoke, many said they are happy to celebrate the survival of a struggle.

Harold Woodard, associate dean of student counseling, who witnessed protests and rallies in the early 1990s, said many people don't realize that many of the participants fighting for the BCC's cause were not all black. "This is such an underappreciated thing and explains why the struggle survived," he said.

Woodard said he is elated to see the freestanding BCC become a reality today.

"I always told people that this day of celebration would come."


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