Mills House (Now New Africa House)

Title

Mills House (Now New Africa House)

Subject

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Description

Mills House was a former dormitory in the Central Residential Area of the UMass Campus. In 1970, Mills House was shut down as a dormitory and shortly after reopened as what today is known as the New Africa House, an academic space and home of the W.E.B. DuBois African American Studies Department. The story of the “loss” of Mills House and its transition from dormitory to academic space paints a revealing portrait of the state of race relations at UMass in the late 1960s and 1970s. These images show the exterior of the building, as well as some of the damage that resulted from tense situations that led to the closing of Mills House, and the opening of New Africa House.

Constructed along the eastern side of Infirmary Way in 1948, Mills House was the fourth dormitory in Central (then known as Clark Hill). Like all the Central dormitories, it was built in Georgian Revival style. A year later, Brook House, a mirror structure to Mills, would be completed. In the following decade, Baker and Van Meter would also be constructed rounding out Central in its current form.

Mills House was unique in that it was among the first dormitories to house black students. Black students were never outright denied admission to the university. They were, however, heavily discouraged from applying, and for most intents and purposes de facto barred from entry en masse until the 1960s. In the later half of the decade, noticing the intense under-representation of black students on campus, members of the UMass faculty came together to create the Committee for the Collegiate Education of Black Students (CCEBS), or as it is referred to in some early documents the CCNES (Committee for the Collegiate Education of Negro Students), in 1967. The mission of the CCEBS was to reach out and recruit black students from out-of-state and from within the Commonwealth. Over the next few years, CCEBS would bring upwards of 150 Black students onto campus.

As these new black students came to campus under the CCEBS program, they were largely limited as to where they could live on campus. The majority of these students ended up assigned to live in Mills House, though there are mentions of black students living in the other parts of Central, and even in Orchard Hill. As a consequence, Mills House quickly became the heart of the black student community on campus. During this time period, there was the emergence of the African Students Association (ASA) on campus, which held regular meetings on the first floor of Mills House. The ASA played a pivotal role in the story of Mills House over the next few years before its transition into the New Africa House.

Two major racially charged incidents would concern Mills House in the time between the formation of the CCEBS and when it became known as New Africa House. The first of these incidents occurred on November 5th, 1968, only a day after the presidential election of that year. According to most sources, a black student named James R. Hall was visiting a white friend of his on Orchard Hill when they were both attacked by a group of five white students, mostly fraternity boys. Allegedly, according to one report, their attackers told Hall and his friend that since Nixon had won the election, “niggers don’t belong at UMass anymore.” A couple stray clippings from unidentified newspapers claim that such an incident never occurred, and that Hall and his friend later admitted in police custody that the incident was a hoax to stir up sympathy for the black student community.

Real or fabricated, the beating of Hall and his friend served as rallying cry to members of the African Students Association, headquartered in Mills House. The next day, November 6th, an organized march of up to 100 black students departed from Mills House headed for Whitmore Administration Building. Upon arrival, these students staged a sit-in protest against the beatings, and read a list of 20 demands to be met by the university administration. These included, amongst others: a public apology from the administration, a minimum of 15 black police officers and the disarming of all police, black doctors on campus, sensitivity training for all faculty and staff, tougher consequences for racist behavior by students and faculty, and funds for the refurbishing of Mills House. After negotiations with then president Lederle and company, the crowd dispersed. The only demand the university met in full was the allocation of additional funds for the refurbishing of Mills House. They absolutely refused to disarm the police, and said since the university police force only consisted of15 positions, all of which were filled, they could not hire any new black officers. They did however agree to hire more black security guards, and to provide mandatory sensitivity training to all police and security personnel.

The ASA licked its wounds and UMass went without another major racial incident until 1970. On February 26th, the ASA was in the process of conducting a regular meeting when it was cut abruptly short by a loud crash from outside. Dan Brown, a black student, had rear ended the car of white student athlete on Infirmary Way. What followed was a heating exchanged between the two which developed into a fistfight. Soon students from both sides, black and white, joined in and initiated what one source called a “race riot”. Outnumbered, the black students eventually retreated into Mills House. Once inside, they expelled all the white students living in the building into the snow, moved furniture to create a barricade and began what became a multi-day occupation of Mills House. One of the expelled white student’s father was a state legislator who within the hour received a call about “rampaging lacks” on UMass campus. The black students, again as in ’68, set forth a list of demands. This time they demanded the university create an Afro-American Studies Department, and establish a Black Cultural Center on campus. The following days would be an intense series of negotiations between the Mills House occupiers, black faculty, university police and administration. Eventually after a 5AM emergency meeting (then) Dean Fields, with a vote from the white students expelled from Mills House, agreed to have the building vacated and shut down as a dormitory by the end of the month, and reopened as a Black Cultural Center. The displaced white students would be housed temporarily by the Math Department in Arnold House. The university approved the creation of the Afro-American Studies Department, something it had been on the fence about for some time, and bequeathed responsibility for this new cultural space onto the fledgling department. This “Black Cultural Center” would take the form of the New Africa House on campus today. New Africa’s heritage as Mills House, and the events leading up to its conversion, are largely obscured and underrepresented in the grander discussion of campus history. Perhaps the university would like to forget the racial tensions of its past.

Creator

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Source

UMass Special Collections and University Archives

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Identifier

RG150-0003368, RG150-0004797, RG150-0004799, RG150-0004800

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Date Added
December 5, 2012
Collection
Orchard Hill
Item Type
Still Image
Citation
“Mills House (Now New Africa House) ,” Lost UMass, accessed May 29, 2017, http://lostumass.omeka.net/items/show/67.