Special thanks to Karla Bell, Seba (Historian) for the Black Student Union.
The William Trotter Multicultural Center recently celebrated its 50th anniversary in February and with each passing milestone, there comes an even greater need to preserve the history and purpose of this building so we do not lose sight of the communities Trotter is supposed to serve. To learn more about Trotter’s history and its significance to Black students at the University of Michigan, I had the opportunity to sit down with Business senior Karla Bell, who serves as the Seba (Historian) on the Black Student Union 2021-2022 Executive Board.
Trotter was originally called Trotter House and was colloquially known as the “Black House” amongst Black students. Directly resulting from the actions of the first (of three) Black Action Movements, Trotter House was built in 1971 as a Black Student Cultural Center to meet the needs of Black students on campus. When talking about the early beginnings of Trotter, Bell said, “Black students really only had Trotter, and it was neither in a safe location on campus nor well funded. Trotter was funded and built at the hands of student labor.”
Trotter House was the host building for events for Black students, but they had to risk their safety to be able to use the space. Bell said, “At the time, Black people on campus were susceptible to violence and danger because (Trotter House) was off-campus in a poorly lit area. Yet still, they risked their wellbeing to be there.” In 1972, the original Trotter House burned down in a kitchen fire so the University bought a building on Washtenaw Avenue to house the student center. By 1981, Trotter House would expand its scope to become a multicultural student center. As the Trotter House expanded to include programming for students of all racial minorities on campus, Black Student Union executive board members tried to appeal for increased funding from the University to expand their efforts in promoting equity on campus.
In 2013, undergraduate and graduate students began “A New Trotter Initiative,” a plan to have a new multicultural center be built at the center of campus. After three years of advocating to the University of Michigan administration for a new building, a $10 million budget was finally approved in 2016 for the building of The William Trotter Multicultural Center. By 2019, Trotter had officially found a new home on South State Street and was open for student use.
Currently, less than 4% of the U-M undergraduate population is Black, making it easy to feel like an outsider in most spaces on campus. Because of this, Trotter is an essential space for Black students. It exists as our place to congregate; it’s one of the only buildings on campus that feels as though it belongs to Black students — a home base of sorts where we can build fellowship, work together and exist in the comfort of our own community. This is why Trotter is frequently used by organizations like BSU and HEADS (Here Earning A Destiny through Honesty, Eagerness, And Determination of Self) to hold their meetings. Students of Color, and specifically Black students, commonly frequent the multicultural center, which speaks to its necessity in the community.
For me personally, I find myself in Trotter after a day of classes more often than not. I always know I’ll run into at least a few of my friends every time I step into the building. Between homework assignments, I’ll usually take a break from my work to make conversation with them and joke around. If I’m not doing homework or hanging out with friends, then usually I’m somehow finding my way into the activities that might be going on in Trotter that day, like a game night or a cultural event. There is such an intrinsic sense of community in Trotter, which makes it unlike any other building on campus.
“If you’re coming into Trotter, learn the history of the space and respect the effort that it took to have this,” Bell said. “(Black) students lost their scholarships for this and faced consequences to have Trotter as a space.” Everyone who comes into Trotter, whether it be for personal use or for an organization, should be mindful that such a space came directly from Black activism. There is a rich history behind how Trotter has transformed into the multicultural center that we know it as today and this history is intertwined with the Black Action Movements.
I’m grateful to the Black students who fought to have a building like Trotter on campus and as we use the space to build fellowship amongst underrepresented groups on campus, it’s imperative that we continue to pass down the history as well.
MiC Columnist Udoka Nwansi can be reached at email@example.com.