First look at the Black Cultural Center unveiled

A rendering of the Black Cultural Center

The University of Oregon’s board of trustees voted unanimously Sept. 6 to name the soon-to-open Black Cultural Center after UO alumna and retired academic advisor Lyllye Reynolds-Parker following a “resounding endorsement” from her former students, UO Black student groups, community members and UO President Michael Schill.

When the BCC naming committee narrowed its list to Reynolds-Parker and one other finalist, Reynolds-Parker “drew overwhelming response and support” during the public-comment period, UO Vice President for Student Life Dr. Kevin Marbury said at a Sept. 6 board of trustees meeting.

“A transformational place like this requires an extraordinary name,” Marbury said. “That name should represent the intricacies of the Black experience at the University of Oregon, while at the same time inspiring current and future students and members of our community.”

Described as “legendary” by the UO Black Student Task Force and others in letters endorsing her, Reynolds-Parker is a 1991 UO alumna and civil rights activist who advised students in UO’s multicultural academic center for 17 years and retired in 2012, according to BCC naming committee documents. 

She is part of one of the first Black families to settle in Eugene, according to the BCC documents, and was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality, a leading activist organization during the civil rights movement.

The majority of commenters on the final name options — about 84 percent — wanted to name the center after Reynolds-Parker, Schill wrote in an Aug. 21 memo to the board of trustees. Supporters included the UO Black Student Union, student body president Sabinna Pierre and several UO alumni who said Reynolds-Parker would eat lunch with them and console them in times of need.

“Despite my status as a dropout and overall roller-coaster experience, Mrs. Parker never left my side. She checked on me daily. Reminded me of the importance of an education. Continuously urged me to complete my education,” a 2013 UO graduate wrote in a letter nominating Reynolds-Parker. “Mrs. Parker was there for me every step of the way. To this day, she checks on me and makes sure I am doing well and helping others in need.”

Other contenders included Derrick Bell Jr., who became the first Black dean of the UO School of Law in 1980. Bell was one of the scholars behind the development of critical race theory, which examines race as a social construct. He died to carcinoid cancer in 2011.

Related: “Letter from the editor: Why we capitalize the letter B in the word Black

The BCC naming committee received 21 nominations from campus and community members, according to Around the O. The committee looked for a leader who has helped Black students or community members succeed in higher education and in their careers; advanced justice and equity for Black Oregonians; and made significant contributions toward UO or Oregon.

UO policy normally limits naming buildings or spaces after non-donors as a recognition for after they have died, but UO trustees made an exception for Reynolds-Parker.

Reynolds-Parker, now 73, is “ecstatic” over the decision, Marbury said.

“While we are thankful for the years of kindness, sacrifice and advocacy Mrs. Parker has championed for us Black students, we know that we can never reimburse the good Mrs. Parker has done for us,” the Black Student Task Force wrote in a Sept. 10 op-ed published in the Emerald. “What our organization will do, and what we ask our fellow Black students to do, is to pass on her gift of compassion and advocacy to present/future Black students, as wealth that lasts innumerable generations.”

The completion of the Lyllye Reynolds-Parker Black Cultural Center this fall will check off another one of the 12 demands that the UO Black Student Task Force — the group comprising members of UO Black Women of Achievement and the Black Student Union — issued in November 2015 and reiterated in a rally the next year. 

Among the task force’s other demands are to change all the KKK-related names of campus buildings; establish Ethnic Studies 101 as a graduation requirement; and to create a Black student leadership task force. Some of those demands — like creating an academic residential community for Black students — have been fulfilled by the university.

The task force specifically demanded that UO commit to creating a substantial endowment fund and support system to fund and open a Black cultural center by fall 2016 and to implement it by fall 2017. Schill announced plans to build the center — and an initial $250,000 gift in funding from longtime UO donors Nancy and Dave Petrone — via a campus-wide email in January 2017.

UO is only one of two public universities in the state to have a cultural center designated for its Black students. At Oregon State University, members of the Black Student Union established the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center in 1975 and reopened it in 2015 in a new, $2.4 million building. However, other public Oregon colleges and universities have multicultural centers or, like Portland State University, a Pan-African community space

The BCC’s $3 million budget is entirely funded by donors, according to Around the O.

The center’s programming will be financed by the Presidential Fund for Excellence, an anonymous gift of $50 million that the UO announced in October 2017. The gift will fund endowed faculty chairs for the UO College of Arts and Sciences as well as the journalism school’s Media Center for Science and Technology, among other projects.

The Petrones have given $1 million in total to fund the BCC’s design, construction and maintenance. They have also donated to fund the EMU’s renovation and expansion, Presidential Scholarships and the Lundquist College of Business, according to Around the O.

Now, the university is narrowing down who to hire as the center’s coordinator, Marbury said. The coordinator will direct the center’s vision and administration, earning an annual salary of around $50,000, according to the position’s online listing.

The 3,200-square-foot center will have art celebrating Black heritage and will hold spaces for studying, student meetings and some small classes. The center will open Oct. 12, Marbury said, and is located near E. 15th Ave. and Villard Street, by Global Scholars Hall.