Carleton’s First Black House: Hill House

By Jevon Robinson ’22

Unknown to many, Hill House was the first Black House. The building was first home to C.A. Drew, a merchant who was a business partner with Miron W. Skinner. Professor Fred Hill, who Sayles-Hill campus center is named after, later purchased this home. After President Cowling arrived at Carleton, the Board of Trustees began searching for a residence for the new president. Constructing a new brick mansion nearby, Professor Hill leased the property to the college in 1909. Slight alterations were made in order to accommodate the president. Holmes and Flinn, the architecture firm responsible for the  construction of many of the early buildings on campus, proposed a redesign of this facility. This design never came to fruition, but minor renovations, like the extension of the front porch and a new coat of paint, satisfied the needs of the president. Hill House remained the president’s residence until Cowling’s retirement in 1945. The house was used by the Office of the President until it was converted to women’s housing in the 1950s.  

The house was used as a women’s dormitory for several years. Residents during this period praised the house for its proximity to campus and the homey feel it provided. The house was converted into an interest house and subsequently became known as French House. This interest house was sustained for multiple years with help from French Department-sponsored programming. The house was also utilized in the summer months along with Parish House for Carleton-sponsored academic programs 

In 1970, a group of Black students proposed turning Hill House into an interest house for Black students. The Office of Residential Life approved the request; however, once President Nason learned that the committee approved such a request without approval from the Office of the President, he was very upset. This was demonstrated in his letter to the Dean of Residential Life where he called them “the royal housing committee.” President Nason was concerned about the legalities regarding creating a house filled with Black students at a time where Carleton was trying to integrate their student  body. In the 1960s, Carleton received access to several funding sources such as the Rockefeller Foundation in hopes of increasing the number of Black students enrolled at the college. These funds made it possible for Carleton to recruit Black students from the  inner cities. While Carleton provided a great education for these students, Carleton and the Northfield community would never be able to replicate elements of Black culture, justifying the creation of this house. 

A resident of the house acknowledged that the first year was very successful and garnered the interests of more Black students than Hill House could accommodate for the next academic year. Hill House was not only a residence for 24 students, but a community space for all black students enrolled at Carleton at the time. Black students enrolled in the A Better Chance (ABC) program and Saint Olaf College were often invited to the space. Hill House provided the space for various academic and social activities such as tutoring sessions, Monday Night Football watch events, brunches, etc. Academic and social resources for the house was provided by the college through the Office of Multicultural Affairs.  

Throughout its four-year existence, Black House at Hill was known by many aliases including: The House, Soul House, and Black House. This space was not only limited to Black students; in fact, residents often hosted often houses in order to give the community a chance to interact with Black culture. It is important to note that the creation of a Black House at Hill House was not immediately welcomed by the Carleton community. The increased visibility of an all-Black house garnered criticism from non-Black students. Residents of the house were accused of being separatists, even though they frequently hosted events providing opportunities to the campus community to  participate in Black culture. A resident in a Carletonian article explained that before the  creation of this house, Black students knew more about white students than they knew about each other. The creation of the house served as a social nucleus for minority students, giving them a chance to get to know each other.  

This student-led initiative has significant impacts for our college’s culture today. The creation of affinity spaces for various cultural identities was inspired by this group of students. Interest in the house declined after enrollment of Black students from inner cities did. As a result, Black House moved to Williams House in 1976. Prior to this change, Williams House was a faculty residence for several years. In 1976, Carleton relocated the faculty member living this house and subsidized the increased rent to allow for this house to be used as a temporary student residence. This action became permanent with a version of Black House being held in this house until the early 90s. The Office of Residential Life did not renew the charter for Black House, constituting a great loss for the Black community at Carleton. Students Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL, now known as BSA) protested this, and as a result, four cultural houses were permanently established to ensure that students of color would always have a space on campus. 

Diversity initiatives as it relates to inclusion of marginalized people have historically been placed on students of color. Similarly, the conditions of today’s cultural houses wouldn’t have been acknowledged without the #Carlstalkback movement and the list of demands by the Ujamaa Collective. The cultural houses serve as a motivating factor for prospective students who worry about potentially being alienated.