Places that Matter

The East (site of)

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Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Cultural center that promoted Black Nationalism and pan-Africanism
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Place Matters Profile

The East was an educational and cultural center that formed in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1969. It gave birth to over 25 programs and projects before it closed its doors in 1986, and it continues to be remembered in the community for its many contributions to education, culture, and political empowerment.

The East was the brainchild of the African-American Student Association (ASA) in collaboration with the African-American Teachers Association (ATA). The full name of the center was "The East Educational and Cultural Center for People of African Descent" to distinguish its focus from Western-centric philosophy and culture. From the beginning, it was dedicated to Black Nationalism and pan-Africanism and its goal was to create cultural awareness and encourage the concept of "nation-building" in the community. Eventually it went on to play an important role not only in Central Brooklyn, but also at a national and international level.

To house The East, ASA leased an abandoned three-story brick building on Claver Place, which it eventually purchased. This building, across the street from St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church, had formerly been home to the Studio O art gallery and artist colony. ASA and community members worked together to clean up and renovate the building, with some individuals donating their electrical, plumbing, carpentry, and painting skills. Open for business in October of 1969, the building included a first-floor assembly hall, offices and a kitchen on the second floor, and classrooms on the third floor. Perhaps its most distinctive feature was a mural on the front of the building by local artist Kinrod Johnson depicting a broad spectrum of African, Caribbean and African-American leaders. This mural is still partially visible on the now-shuttered building.

The programs and activities of The East were broad and varied. Among its significant projects were the publication of the monthly Black News, which circulated in 50 cities nationwide; the opening of the politically and culturally-focused Akiba Mkuu bookstore; a land cooperative project in Guyana; the International African Arts Festival, which grew from a small local celebration to one attracting over 60,000 people; and a weekly cultural program, "Black Experience in Sound," with performances by well-known artists such as Betty Carter, Pharaoh Sanders and Max Roach. Other significant activities included the creation of the Uhuru Sasa Shule (Freedom Now School), a Teacher Training Institute, the Evening School of Knowledge and the East Kitchen, which fed the students and patrons at performances. In 1976 The East moved some of its programs, including the school, to the Sumner Avenue Armory, which it renamed the Uhuru Cultural Center.

The East closed its doors and ceased operations in 1986. Its legacy included institutions which established themselves as extensions of the East: The Far East in Queens, which did not last very long; the Mid East in Brownsville, Brooklyn; and the Uhuru-East Bookstore and Cultural Center in Memphis, Tennessee (none of which are still in operation). Former East members also went on to establish other institutions including the Center for Law and Social Justice, Black Veterans for Social Justice, and Imani Day School Computer Campus. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the center is the ongoing International African Arts Festival, held every July at the Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It is now a five-day festival that includes a marketplace with over 300 merchants, musical performances, and family entertainment.

Marilyn Nance, one of the young students who was part of the ASA and the founding of the center, summarizes the significance of the former East building in this way: "there was a movement that was important and the site was the place that held the movement -- where the movers and shakers went to meet."

Sources:

Bracey, Sana. Interviewed by Elena Martinez for Place Matters. March 15, 2000.

Nance, Marilyn. Interviewed by Elena Martinez for Place Matters. September 22, 1999.

Niamke, Kalonji Lasina. "The Legacy of 'The East': An Analysis of a Case Experience in Independent Institution and Nation(alist) Building, 1969-1986." Masters Thesis, Cornell University, 1999.