BY CAITLIN C. CLERKIN, IPCAA
The Kelsey Museum is getting a new neighbor! Kelsey regulars and visitors alike have undoubtedly noticed the construction project to the north of the Kelsey on State Street.* In case you missed the official ground-breaking, this blog post will provide a little orientation to the whats and whys of the project.
The William Monroe Trotter Multicultural Center will be moving from its current location (1443 Washtenaw Avenue) to the new facility (currently being built) on State Street. This project is the result of an exciting combination of student activism and the recognition that space and place matter in both rhetoric and practice.
This is not the first time in Trotter’s history that this combination has led to concrete change. Indeed, what is now Trotter Multicultural Center began its organizational life in fall 1971 as William Monroe Trotter House, a Black student center named for the early 20th-century journalist and civil rights activist, on the corner of South and East University Streets. It was founded in the wake of a 1970 campus-wide strike organized by the first Black Action Movement (BAM I), a coalition of Black student groups which protested against discrimination and marginalization of Black students in university policy and university life. The strike led to negotiations between BAM and the University administration. Among the BAM demands were structural changes (e.g., increasing enrollment of Black students to 10% by 1973 in order to match state demographics) and resources that would support Black and Hispanic students, such as the establishment of a Black student center. Not all of these demands have been fulfilled (notably, Black student enrollment has never reached 10%). Two subsequent activism campaigns (BAM II and United Coalition Against Racism/BAM III) took place in 1975 and 1987. (See a recent essay by Austin McCoy about this legacy and continuing activism.)
Trotter House moved to its current Washtenaw location in 1972 after a fire destroyed the first house; it was renamed William Monroe Trotter Multicultural Center to match an expanded mission in 1981. Now, its planned move to State Street is the direct result of Black student activism.
In 2013, students concerned about University inattention to the Trotter facility on Washtenaw organized an initiative, A New Trotter (ANT), with the goal of a new building for Trotter. This goal gained more momentum under the #BBUM—Being Black at the University of Michigan—campaign organized by the Black Student Union (BSU). For those unfamiliar, the #BBUM campaign was aimed at sparking conversation about race and diversity—and specifically about the experiences of Black students on campus—across the whole campus. It drew national attention to the University, bringing to the fore student priorities for improving diversity and climate and pushed the University administration to respond to student demands. #BBUM culminated in seven demands issued to the University administration in winter 2014; the creation of a new Trotter Multicultural Center on Central Campus counted among the seven.
The importance of space and place was apparent in the BSU’s demand that Trotter to Central Campus: the students’ desire to move Trotter demonstrates that location is meaningful. In the fields of art and archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, we constantly discuss the ways in which locations matter and buildings constitute arguments. Depressingly, many examples we attempt to illuminate with our scholarship show how urban planning and monumental building in antiquity sought to exclude and enhance inequality, rather than to include, integrate, and support. A “classic” Roman example is the high (33 meter) rear wall of the Forum of Augustus in Rome. This firewall is usually seen as serving two related purposes. Built of stone with fire-resistant properties, it may have been intended to prevent any fires from the adjacent overcrowded, lower-class neighborhood of the Subura from spilling into imperial, public space. In addition, the wall blocked the Subura from view, hiding non-elite sights, smells, and people away from the public and especially elite viewers. Thus, this urban “amenity” excluded the Subura from its vision of Rome, keeping it physically separated, while creating differences in physical risk (fire) between the public forum and the Subura.
This phenomenon of spatial exclusion is, of course, not restricted to the ancient Mediterranean—it is a constant in modern periods also, although the specifics and mechanisms differ from place to place and by era. Countless projects, researchers, and activists in many fields have explored, questioned, and fought against this practice; for example, I recently ran across a project that maps residential segregation in 19thcentury American cities. And, indeed, as Austin McCoy noted to the Michigan Daily, the location of Trotter on Washtenaw, away from Central Campus, matches, spatially and physically, the marginal position that students of color experience at the University of Michigan. Centralizing an institution that has supported students of color at Michigan for more than 40 years is an encouraging move.
Relocating Trotter to Central Campus has both practical and symbolic value. On the practical side, Trotter will be closer to students on campus: stopping in or attending Trotter’s many events will be easier and quicker. Easier access, greater visibility, and closer connections to other units by virtue of its location on Central Campus will hopefully knit Trotter Multicultural Center—and its legacy of being an inclusive and supportive space (and the legacy of its namesake!)—even more deeply into the fabric of University life and help it serve more students.
On the symbolic side, the presence of Trotter on State Street makes a physical argument for the integral position of communities of color in the University (in the “heart” of campus) and marks a recognition of the need to support them through institutions like Trotter Center. Trotter has served for years as a “vibrant hub” for students (as Interim-Director Michael Swanigan describes it): it has a long, active history of offering programs aimed at fostering cultural dialogues, spaces for student organizations to meet, study spaces, and, especially, a supportive context for students to build relationships and thrive.
Trotter’s future location on State Street expresses a physical and concrete commitment by the University to include its diverse student communities and their experiences. The University community can do more than just hope that this promise is fulfilled—every person can and should work actively to make sure the University and the wider community uphold this promise of inclusion and support. We can all do this by holding the University accountable when it fails, by acting inclusively, and by engaging thoughtfully and actively in mission of an equitable university.
This archaeologist (writing this essay) is heartened by this move. It reminds us of the power of student voices (we sometimes lose sight of the possibilities of this kind of agency in archaeology!). In addition, a place—Trotter Center, with its long legacy of support for students—is being relocated to a Central Campus space that will help it better fulfill its mission: this is an exciting and positive example of putting spatial rhetoric into practice.
At the Kelsey Museum, construction of the new Trotter Center has meant the installation of vibration monitors (to ensure the safety of the collections), some temporary changes in access, and eager anticipation of our future neighbors. The Kelsey (including the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology graduate students who lurk in Newberry Hall) is excited to welcome the Trotter Center to State Street!
Note: My hearty thanks to Professor Stephen Ward and Trotter Interim-Director Michael Swanigan for speaking to me about Trotter Center.
Please see the following links (in addition to those embedded in the article) for more information about the construction project and for further reading (drawn upon in writing this post):
“Trotter House Origins,” by James Tobin, in the Spring 2013 issue of LSA Magazine (pp. 35–36): https://lsa.umich.edu/content/dam/lsa-site-assets/documents/lsa-magazine/13spr-fullmag.pdf
“Researching the Truth,” by Dan Shine, in the Fall 2016 issue of Collections, the Bentley Historical Library magazine (p. 16):
*Never fear, internet people! There is a webcam, so you can watch the work, too!