If there is one unifying theme throughout the history of Black students at Northwestern, it’s that the community has maintained an unfettered will to advocate for its own interests by challenging institutional racism on campus.
In the summer of 2015, Northwestern’s Black community took swift action after administration expressed intentions to consolidate the Black House with Multicultural Student Affairs, which would have moved general staff offices into the space long regarded as a sanctuary for Black students. Fearing that the radical history of the Black House would be obscured, students further demanded the creation of a university position dedicated to the documentation of Black history on Northwestern’s campus.
Their demands were met. The Black House was not consolidated and, in 2017, Charla Wilson became the first Archivist for the Black Experience at the Northwestern Libraries. For nearly two years, she has devoted herself to recording the experiences of the whole of Northwestern’s Black community, including students, organizations, alumni and faculty.
Now, Wilson is working on a new project: an audio tour of the locations on campus most significant to Northwestern’s Black history. The idea for the tour came about last May, when the university hosted a number of programs to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bursar’s Office Takeover.
“In addition to all the events that were taking place that weekend, we wanted to do something that would be a little bit more permanent,” Wilson said. “[We wanted] people to encounter the history of the Bursar’s Office Takeover after that commemoration weekend ended.”
Originally, the tour was going to feature only the Bursar’s Office, but Wilson has decided to expand the project to capture a broader scope of Black history on Northwestern’s campus. She hopes to shed light on that history in multiple realms, including the arts, athletics, religion, Greek life, interaction with the Evanston community and more.
Currently, Wilson is recruiting a student assistant to work on creating the audio tour this summer. She will work with the student to identify the locations for the tour, research the historical significance of each location, and finally, compose a script and record the audio. Wilson strongly emphasized the importance of having a student’s voice narrating the tour.
“The Bursar’s Office takeover was a student protest, and I think it’s important to have a student tell the story,” she said.
Wilson also wants to create an interactive map using the Knight Lab’s StoryMap tool, which would allow people to take the tour online. The online exhibit would also give Wilson the flexibility to update the tour over time and highlight additional locations not featured on the official audio tour, which for time’s sake will feature a limited collection of sites.
Once completed, the tour will be accessible to not only the Northwestern community, but to anyone in the public interested in learning about the university’s history.
“We’re also looking at making sure it’s an education tool so if professors want to use it in their courses, they could do so,” Wilson said. “There are classes on the 1960s and classes on African-American studies that could probably use it.”
Wilson hopes that the audio tour will encourage people to visit the archives, where they can gain an even greater understanding of Black history through a plethora of library records and materials.
The 2015 protest, she said, was a crucial reminder of how important it is for that history not to be forgotten. She believes the audio tour will be an excellent way for the Northwestern community to continually reflect on its past, engage thoughtfully in the present, and create a better future for all its students.
“One of the main reasons why we’re doing this project is because it’s a history that we need to make sure is constantly being told,” Wilson said. “It’s a story that’s worth retelling and passing on to each person who comes onto Northwestern’s campus.”