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Sonja Haynes Stone Center celebrates 30th anniversary at UNC

sonya hanes
Students spend the morning studying in the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018.

The Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History is celebrating its 30th anniversary of exploring all dimensions of African-American and African diaspora cultures this year.

The center was originally established at the long-time urging of Black students and faculty at UNC in 1988 as the Black Cultural Center and was housed in the Frank Porter Graham Student Union. Although a freestanding building site was approved by the UNC Board of Trustees in 1993, the current Stone Center did not open until 2004.

Joseph Jordan, director of the Stone Center since 2002, said the center’s main mission is to examine and research the art cultures and histories of African-Americans and diaspora at UNC.

“We’re on a mission to magnify this information and bring it to folks to ask them to deal with it and to add it to the commonplace of discussion," Jordan said. "We don’t want it to be some little special spot over there in the corner, and ‘You know, by the way, if you want to see Black things you go to The Stone Center.’ We say, if you want to see a significant part of what this country is and what helped to make this world what it is, then you have to go to all parts of campus – and we’re in that mix.”

Some of the many programs the center offers include hosting visiting artists, film festivals and speaker series which explore African-American and diaspora history and culture. The center also provides fellowships for students, as well as opportunities and financial support for underrepresented students to travel and study abroad.

Carol Tresolini, vice provost for Academic Initiatives, said the programs the Stone Center offers are enriching both the UNC campus and community.

“Yet another dimension is that the Stone Center connects very strongly to the community. They have a long-standing community called Communiversty that supports students who serve as volunteers to tutor and facilitate after-school activities for elementary-aged students in the community, which has been very important,” she said.

Jordan said at the time the center was originally established, there wasn’t a place on campus solely for Black students to meet to explore common interests and aspirations, and students were instrumental to the establishment of the center.

“It was of course like most good things to happen at universities – because this is what students demanded,” he said.

According to "Names in Brick and Stone: Histories from UNC’s Built Landscape," The Black Student Movement opened the Upendo – the Swahili word for love –  Lounge on the first floor of Chase Hall in 1973 to serve as a center for Black students to gather in a predominately Black space. 

After years of student efforts to fight University threats to securing a space for Upendo Lounge, including a protest by 200 Black protestors on University Day in 1976, Donald Boulton, vice chancellor and dean of the division of student affairs at the time, convened a committee to develop a proposal for a Black cultural center in 1984. The Black Cultural Center officially opened on July 1, 1988 in the temporary space in the Student Union.

Jordan said he is happy to be a continued part of the primarily Black UNC community and graduate family that worked so hard for a freestanding Black cultural center – which cost over $9 million to build.

“The best thing and most important thing is this center fulfills the dreams and vision of alum, faculty and community that had been out there for at least 50 years before the center came into being, and I’m happy to be a part of that,” he said.

One of those graduates, Sonja Haynes Stone, is the namesake of center. Stone promoted minority presence on campus and served as the advisor to BSM from 1974 to 1980. The center was renamed for her and all of her contributions to Black students and faculty at UNC after her death in 1991.

More than 95 percent of the Stone Center was funded through private gifts, according to the center’s website. Jordan said program support still comes almost entirely from private gifts, making community engagement especially important. 

In addition to securing more of a financial footing, Jordan said he hopes the center will be able to complete turning the basement level of the center into a multipurpose room and build a staff to make the center available on a wider basis. 

Juan Álamo, UNC music professor and former Stone Center visiting artist, said he’s been able to collaborate with many of the artists featured at the center in addition to providing interactions between visiting artists and his students.

“Our students are getting firsthand interaction and exposure to the things we teach, in my case Latino music – it’s a great resource we don’t have anyone where else on campus,” Álamo said. “I cannot envision myself at UNC without that, it’s such an integral part of what I do and hope to continue to do at UNC.”

While the center rents out building space to local artists and organizations for additional programs, Jordan said the center never charges student groups.

“We felt it would be important to understand and acknowledge that some of the best things that happen on this campus happen come from students being able to freely associate and do work they want to do,” he said.

Junior Kierra Pittman, public relations intern at the Stone Center, said she tries to use her voice to increase visibility of all programs the center has, which she said many students don’t know about.

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“I think the Stone center is very important to UNC’s campus, especially for marginalized groups,” Pittman said. “I feel like I’ve been able to find a space where I feel comfortable, where I feel celebrated, where I can open discussion with people who look like me but with also with people who don’t look like me and have healthy conversation.”

This year, the Stone Center will be hosting multiple events, including a symposium to look at the disappearance of Black bookstores around the country, a production on Big Mama Thorton, as well as an art exhibition on Nov. 8, which will feature work from 14 of the 28 Stone Center Visiting Artists the center has featured since its opening.

Jordan said the Stone Center’s introduction of a new generation of artists who explore African-American and diaspora culture is crucial in the center’s impact on campus.

“It’s the ability to bring an intellectual perspective on art and culture that reflects what’s really happening in Black communities – not only here but in other parts of the world."