New Africa House

New Africa House
New Africa House, then and now

February 27, 1970

“One night I got a phone call about 10 o’clock: 'Mike, Mike you got to come over to Mills House. The Black students have occupied it and chased out the white students',” said Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, a founding chairman for the African American Studies Department, in the documentary Look Back and Wonder: The Rise of Black Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. An audio clip of the takeover news coverage can be found here.

Michael M. Thelwell, ca. 1998
Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, ca. 1998

Two years before, the Committee for the Collegiate Education of Black Students helped enroll 128 Black students to UMass. 

“We didn’t want the community divided up, we needed a center on campus where they could come together, we needed a Black culture center,” Thelwell said in the documentary. Having the New Africa House as a Black culture center and creating an African American studies department were included in a list of demands presented to the university by Black students at the time. 

The New Africa House, according to Allen, offered “a sense of protection on the campus, because there were incidents, and some very nasty incidents that occurred in the early years of New Africa House. Students saw this as a place where they would encounter solidarity,” he said. 

“The '70s was a radical time,” said Judyie Al-Bilali, an associate professor of Performance and Theater for Social Change. “So the fact that there was also a pioneering Black Studies Department, it gave a feeling to the campus. There was political unrest. We were in the streets all the time. That’s the way we knew to do it.” 

Al-Bilali graduated from UMass in 1978 as one of its first BDIC students, and came back for her graduate degree in 2000. She now works in the Commonwealth Honors College and the theater department. 

The New Africa House was also a place for community. In the 1970s, the space housed a restaurant and a barber shop. 

“A wonderful Ghanaian woman by the name of Yvonne John and her family had a place where you could eat and they cooked soul food; it was chicken and rice and peas,” Al-Bilali said. 

Allen said that faculty, staff, and students all enjoyed the restaurant. “Not just African American students or faculty either. It was very much a highly social place,” he said. 

Over time, the New Africa House has provided services and resources that give support and a vital sense of belonging  to students, staff, and faculty of color, including:

  • The Barber Shop
  • The metal & ceramics shop (Basement level)
  • Pirate Radio Station (4th floor)
  • Yvonne’s Restaurant
  • Benjamin Banneker Facility, the first computer center on campus through a grant from Digital in Springfield
  • The Che Lumumba Day School
  • RSO Offices
  • Nommo newspaper
  • Augusta Savage Art Gallery
  • W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies

Additional Reading:

The New Africa House: yesterday, today and tomorrow, The Daily Collegian, February 28, 2021

The W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies