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'Black Women in the Ivory Tower'

June 21, 2007

In his landmark demographic studies of black America, W.E.B. Du Bois found that by 1880, 54 black women had earned college degrees. A new book, Black Women in the Ivory Tower: 1850-1954 (University Press of Florida), tells the stories of these women and those who followed them in the period up to the end of legal segregation in the United States. The author of the book is Stephanie Y. Evans, assistant professor of African-American studies and women's studies at the University of Florida. She recently responded to questions via e-mail about the book.

Q: Were there common qualities in the first black women to obtain a higher education in the United States? What drove these black women in an era when society was so prejudiced against the idea that they would benefit from higher education?

A: Black women scholars of the past found themselves in an ambiguous social position that continues to plague black women scholars today: college women were less likely to marry and have children. They had a difficult time balancing their individual desires for education with the narrow gender roles for black women at the time (agricultural or domestic labor). African American collegiate women did not fit neatly into either the black communities, which were undereducated and resource poor, nor the white society to which their education acculturated them. Creating space within academic institutions and demanding quiet time to study was no small feat for early scholars and managing a multitude of womanhood stereotypes was a common focus of historic women.

Archival sources tell of the conflicting intellectual exchanges in which these early black women scholars engaged. For example, on one hand, they were social activists, as demonstrated by Lucy Stanton's 1850 abolitionist graduation speech at Oberlin College entitled "A Plea for the Oppressed"; on the other hand, they sought entry into the elite halls of academia, as evidenced by Mary Annette Anderson's 1899 valedictory graduation speech at Middlebury College entitled "The Crown of Culture."

Historic black collegiate women were caught in a unique social contract because of the intersection of their race and gender. Using a framework based on Rousseau's Social Contract, Carol Pateman's Sexual Contract and Charles Mills's Racial Contract, in this research I posit the existence of a standpoint social contract for black women that is an intersection of the racial and sexual contracts. The framers of this nation's Constitution -- without input from those designated as non-citizens -- penned a foundational agreement that hinged upon black women's subjugated position. This contract mandated that black women be ignorant, silent, and subservient. Although black women are not a homogeneous group and differ in ethnicity, nationality, religion, occupation, and sexuality, their shared experiences created a recognizable standpoint, or social location, for black women. Common in their experience was their relation to this contract that excluded all black women from political participation and social equity.

There were many differences in the early generations of black women: some were born enslaved, most were free; some studied liberal arts, most were enrolled in common schools for teacher training; some were daughters of middle-class African American families, most were from working-class or impoverished backgrounds. However, the unifying trait of all black college women before 1954 was that they were driven. Given the barriers they faced, they had to be in order to succeed.

Q: What were the major obstacles faced by the earliest black women in higher education?

A: Barriers to black women's college participation included violence, legal discrimination based on race and sex, and institutional variables like discriminatory classroom or campus policies. There is an eerie continuity in some of historic women's narratives that demonstrates the social embarrassment, academic harassment, and unbridled hostility visited on black women (as students and faculty) was consistent and persistent. Some of the pressures that I felt as a student and often am faced with as a black woman faculty member (issues of credibility and authority) turn up in narratives from the 1850s to the 1950s. External issues of institutionalized racism and sexism exacerbated internal issues of self-esteem present for most college students.

Additionally, black women college attendees fought to balance familial roles, church responsibilities, and organizational duties with their desire to access the individualistic privileges of Academe. Black women wanted the right to whatever education might be available for any citizen of a democracy, yet the culture of community service required them to focus on learning what was necessary to secure a good job, usually teaching or nursing to uplift communities, contribute to caretaking of their parents, and raise a family of their own.

Q: Many of the early black women graduates attended a very small number of colleges -- with institutions like Oberlin and Fisk playing a huge role and many other institutions doing nothing. What were factors that made a few colleges welcome black women?

A: State and regional politics played a very large part in college access. Before the Civil War, over 250 institutions offered college-level work; only a select few were open to black or women students. The most notable were Oberlin (founded in 1833), Antioch (1853), and Wilberforce (1856), all in Ohio; Hillsdale (1844) in Michigan; Cheyney (1837) and Lincoln (1854) in Pennsylvania; and Berea (1855) in Kentucky. There were a few states, like Vermont which also offered entrance to one or two black students. Generally, college opportunity blossomed in Northern or Midwestern states.

In 1890, black women's college graduation rate was evenly balanced between Northern and Southern states. Only two decades later, a significant demographic shift had taken place. The time had ended when the North was the paramount region for black women's educational opportunity; this was the age of Southern institutional growth. I suggest two reasons for this shift: first, the solidification of the Plessy v. Ferguson Jim Crow segregation decreased attendance at formerly racially mixed institutions such as Berea College. Berea, founded in 1855 as a college for "black and white together," succumbed in 1904 to the Day Law, which prohibited integrated schooling in the state of Kentucky.

Second, proliferation of HBCU's during the Reconstruction South opened up opportunity, even though growth was erratic. Though accreditation discrepancies would not allow a clear count of graduates, over 50 black-serving institutions came of age following the Civil War. HBCU's were significant because there was virtually no opportunity for black students to attend state PWI's in the South. Only three state schools in the South that admitted African Americans benefited from the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862: Virginia, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Though the majority of black college women graduates were in the South, few were in state schools: by 1910, only 2 black women had graduated in state schools in Virginia, 2 in Mississippi, and 22 in South Carolina.

Of 252 Black women graduates by 1900, 118 had graduated from Southern colleges (including Texas), and only 90 from Northern and middle-state colleges (including D.C.). By 1910, 514 black women had graduated from black colleges in the South and only 144 from white colleges in the North or Midwest. In the second wave of educational attainment, the profile of the black woman collegian became overwhelmingly Southern.

In addition to Northern and Southern changes, westward movement increased. By 1900, 3 black women had graduated from the University of Kansas, and by 1910, 20 black women had graduated from colleges in the state. A few black families headed West during the California Gold Rush, decades before substantial higher education developed there.

Between World War I and World War II, droves of migrants to Northern and urban areas, the modernization produced by two world wars, cultural renaissance in popular cities like Harlem, St. Louis, and Chicago, the Great Depression, and the intensification of mass mobilization for citizenship rights all had great impacts on black women's college experiences in the third wave of educational attainment. While the growing majority of black women attended undergraduate colleges in the South, the access to graduate studies, though slow, again drew them to northern urban institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, and Columbia University in New York.

Q: Today there is much attention to the scarcity of black men in higher education. How do you feel about the way that issue is discussed, in light of the history you present?

A: With very few exceptions, in all races, at all levels, women are either on par or slightly above men in college enrollment and degrees earned. However, the disparity between the numbers of collegiate black women and men, however, is drastic. Quite simply, this stems from a longstanding social trend of vilifying black men in order to justify wholesale murder and incarceration. Tracking black men into prison and away from college shows that black men experience different barriers because of the relationship of gender to their race. This is not discussed enough because with very few exceptions (there are some beginning steps in Georgia's "African American Male Initiative" and South Carolina's "Call Me Mister" higher education programs), there are few policies in place to address this horrific trend. The nation and the world are denied the brilliance of black men because of a dated tradition of institutionalized racism. Fear and aggression against black men is ingrained, knee-jerk, pervasive, and deadly. Some black men have internalized the myths, which extends the deadly reach of the problem. Conscious and deliberate action is necessary to stop and reverse this long-standing trend.

However, that is only one side of the higher education picture. My book addresses the similarly shocking experiences and standing of black women in the academy. Although black women dominate black men in the student ranks, black women's faculty numbers are consistently lower than black men's. Black women's college enrollment has been higher than black men's since the early 20th century, but by 1995, black men had earned 30,000 Ph.D.'s compared to black women's 20,000. Moreover, this trend of black women holding fewer academic positions, while being relegated to junior ranks, and receiving tenure in lower numbers, is unyielding.

Historically, black collegiate women have suffered much: from racialized sexual harassment and violent intimidation; racial segregation and stigmatized separation; stereotypes that presume black and female intellectual inferiority; lack of role models and professional mentors; feminization of poverty; and intense pressure to be family and community caretaker at the expense of individual development. Each of these factors has worked against black women's college degree attainment and impacts their will to persevere through academically and socially challenging courses of study at universities that were at best unwelcoming and at worst hostile. Further, black women's scholarship has increased significantly since the 1980s but, unfortunately, that body of scholarship has not reached the mainstream in many geographic and disciplinary areas. While many traditional scholars seriously consider the ideas of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, not enough engage (or even acknowledge) the groundbreaking academic work of Dr. Anna Julia Cooper. Black Women in the Ivory Tower addresses the combination of race and gender in intellectual production and exposes the advantages men -- even black men -- have in the academy.

Ultimately, it is unproductive to say that either black men or black women have it worse -- there are definitely gendered aspects of race, both of which need to be addressed. To say that the issue of black men in prison or in college is more or less important than black women's faculty positions or domestic violence is to fall into the divide-and-conquer trap. We must work to improve all areas.

Q: Are there particular lessons from this history that speak to you, as a black woman academic in a different era?

A: I am grateful to have this book completed and honored to have been able to tell the compelling stories here. I believe it will help black women in particular but will also free all academics from the harrowing myths of black female intellectual inferiority. Though the academy was not made for women like me, I offer reflections that help make sense of why I am NOT an outsider. I operate, like the women have before me, as a negotiator of the space between individuals and institutions. After reading the varied histories of black women academics, I posited the standpoint social contract as a way to destabilize the assumptions of white/male superiority but also to uncover the intellectual gems offered by black women academics.

This book has given me confidence, insight, and appreciation for my work. After reading what black women of prior generations have overcome, I feel well armed for the challenges that I face. To have glimpsed the inner turmoil experienced and recorded by past African American women academics, I am better prepared to face my own fears of inadequacy, intimidation, and insecurity. Also, reading the theories, methodologies, and conclusions of past researchers has helped me situate the arguments, approach, and application of my own work. Finally, reading the joy experienced by black women academics helped me further appreciate what a blessing it is to have the ability to earn a living by reading and writing. I love my job, I'm good at it, and telling these women's stories will (hopefully) allow all academics to re-evaluate their work from a perspective of appreciation and dedication in order to face the much needed reforms of all levels of education in the United States.

After reading these women's stories, I was able to clearly articulate my personal and professional values: love, balance, human rights, civil rights, humility, and sustainability. Perhaps those who are charged with educating the next generation of professors will consider the charge offered by insightful, progressive, and effective educators such as Anna Julia Cooper and Mary McLeod Bethune.

 

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