The Black Awareness Cultural Organization House, also known as BACO House, is located on the southern part of campus, just behind the library and the heating plant and across from Ink Pond. In 1888, when a student came down with scarlet fever during the school year, President William Fletcher King decided that Cornell needed a convenient "hospital" on campus grounds. “The Cottage” was built during the summer of 1889 at the cost of $550 and included a cellar, a cistern, and an outhouse. It would remain Cornell’s infirmary until 1923, when a new health center was established in the vicinity of Dows Hall and Ebersole Health Center. From then on it would be home to various Cornell faculty and employees, and eventually it became the residence of the college’s night watchman. In March of 1969, the college administration handed the cottage over to the Afro-American Society of Cornell, and it became the Black Student Center.
This was done in response to the Old Sem Takeover, which had occurred five months earlier. In 1968, as part of the Civil Rights activism emerging on college campuses nationwide, a group of Cornell students staged a protest sit-in, prompted by a sense of frustration at the administration's reluctance to respond to their concerns over inequality and lack of black representation on campus. Early in the morning on October 17, thirty student demonstrators gained entrance to Old Sem and barricaded themselves inside. They blocked the door, preventing school administration from entering the building, while they awaited the response from President Samuel Strumpf. Student leader Doyle Raglon issued a Black Liberation handbill that included the group's demands for greater representation in the curriculum, the faculty, and the selection of campus speakers.
A central demand was the creation of a “Black Activities Center” open to the general public and directed by a council of students, to be located in Old Guild Hall, a former honors dorm that had been vacant for the past four years. They envisioned a space for a lecture hall, an assembly hall, and a social area, along with a library stocked with works from black authors and black magazines.
Of all the demands issued by the protesters, it was the activities center that seemed to cause the most controversy. At least one student referred to it as an example of “reverse discrimination,” questioning why black students should get a separate meeting place when religious and cultural groups did not have one. President Strumpf acknowledged the need to address this demand, but also expressed concern that the center could prove to be a source of division, rather than unity, saying, "It is hoped that the basic assumptions of equality and an open community will be maintained at Cornell and that separation is only a transitional phase in the black movement."
These concerns overlook the fact that the initial request clearly stated that “The Black Activities Center, though oriented toward Black objectives, will be open to the public in general.” Doyle Raglon reiterated this point, stating, “The only reason it would not be integrated would be because the whites did not show up.” Non-black students were also permitted to serve on the council, which would direct the center’s activities.
Perhaps because of Guild Hall’s location off-campus, and the concern over the appearance of exclusivity, the college opted to use an on-campus building instead. The cottage by Ink Pond was considerably smaller than Old Guild Hall, and was unable to hold an assembly or a lecture hall. The Afro-American Society of Cornell College, which became the Students for Black People (SFBP) in 1973, would host numerous events on campus during the coming decades, but few of them would take place in the Black Student Center.
Despite these limitations, the house served an important function not only as a meeting place for the SFBP, but also as a social gathering point. One early member, Odell McGee ’74, recalls, “For a long time, they wouldn't allow us to have a black house. The students threatened to strike . . . . The black students, at the house, had a place to meet and discuss. It was utilized by those who felt a great need to get away and relax for a little time.”
Until the early 1980s, the Black Student Center was informally referred to as the Black House and did not become the BACO House until the SFBP changed their name to the Black Awareness Cultural Organization (BACO) in October of 1986. The official name of the building in the late 1980s was the Minority Cultural Center, and this would later become its designation on campus maps, although BACO House was still the name used by students. Despite the BACO House’s unique place in Cornell’s history, by 1992 it was largely in a state of neglect.
During the early 1990s, a number of new multicultural groups were established at Cornell, representative of a diversifying student body. These new organizations looked to BACO as an example of a successful multicultural organization, and at least one member suggested that BACO House become a “temporary haven for newborn multicultural groups.” Despite some initial tensions, BACO did open up their house to these younger multicultural groups, and began to collaborate closely with them. The most noticeable example of this cooperation was the 1994 Student Report regarding the ways that Cornell College could create a more inviting atmosphere for multicultural students. One section of this report discusses the need for an official multicultural student center at Cornell. The size and location of BACO House made its current de facto status as the center for all multicultural students logistically impractical. Furthermore, the house had been given to the African-American students of Cornell, and not to all multicultural organizations, and some students felt that labeling it the multicultural center reflected the administration's vision of all multicultural groups as one body.
The Council on Multiculturalism would endorse Stoner House as the ideal location for the College’s multicultural center. The central location of the house made it easier for students to access, and since it was two stories tall with additional space in the basement, it could easily accommodate the needs of all multicultural student groups. This proposal was accepted by the school administration, and Stoner House would become available to Cornell’s ten multicultural groups. However, BACO House remained in use.
In 2010, BACO moved into a new, larger building that Cornell had recently acquired. The former BACO House currently sits locked and unused, awaiting a new use for the space. The new house is called the Armstrong House, after Frank Armstrong, the first African-American to graduate from Cornell College in 1900. The house is located behind the Thomas Commons at 322 College Boulevard SW, providing residential space for students as well as serving the functions of a student center for members of BACO.