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New Book Explores History of Black Studies

In her new book The Black Revolution on Campus (University of California Press) Dr. Martha Biondi, an associate professor of African-American studies and history at Northwestern University, chronicles the turbulent 1960s student movement that resulted in the formation of Black Studies programs on college campuses across the nation.

“We don’t understand or appreciate the student founders of the field,” says Biondi, who recently presented the inaugural lecture for the “Reflections on African American Studies” series at Princeton University’s Center for African American Studies. The title of her talk was “The Counter Revolution on Campus: Why Black Studies is so Controversial.”

In her lecture, Biondi focused on the formation of Black studies programs at various college campuses across the country, including San Francisco State, Harvard and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The fight to begin and institutionalize Black studies programs at some of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) was often met with fierce resistance and state-sanctioned violence that sometimes ended in death and injury. For example, in May 1967, at the height of the civil rights movement, police led a full-scale assault on Texas Southern University in Houston, according to Biondi.

“One night a person or persons threw rocks and bottles from a dormitory and allegedly fired a gun as well. At two o’clock in the morning police officers invaded the campus, firing 3,000 rounds of pistol and automatic gunfire into the dorm,” she added. The brutal attack left a police officer dead—killed by another police officer’s bullet—and two other police officers and two students wounded from gunfire. Biondi says that more than 400 students were arrested by the Houston police. At Tuskegee a year later, students locked the school’s board of trustee members in a room for 11 hours in their effort to secure a Black studies program at the college founded by Booker T. Washington. 

The student activism at HBCUs is “largely omitted from the memory of the Civil Rights Movement,” says Biondi,  adding that historians have not given equal attention to the student-led movements at HBCUS compared to those waged by White students at majority institutions like Kent State.

When Black students waged their fight for Black studies programs at largely White institutions, they were met with resistance too. Biondi says the internal battles among faculty and administrators largely centered on how best to institutionalize Black studies into the curriculum and whether it should be considered a program or a full-fledged department with its own faculty. 

Though Harvard’s Black studies program received national recognition in the 1990s because of its celebrity professors, Biondi says the formation of Harvard’s Black studies program was turbulent. In its early days, faculty insisted that Black studies majors also complete a second major and that faculty hold joint teaching appointments in more traditional academic departments.

Biondi notes that Dr. Martin Kilson—Harvard’s first Black tenured professor—was deeply ambivalent about the need for an independent Black studies department, arguing that students who emerge from Harvard’s program might not receive the same rigorous training that they might otherwise receive if they earned a degree in a more traditional discipline. At the end of the day, Biondi says that “students, not scholars, were responsible for Black studies programs.”

Once Black studies programs took off on college campuses, an internal debate surfaced over “who was qualified and willing to teach” the courses. Biondi notes that Dr. Vincent Harding, who was teaching at Spelman College in the 1960s, was flooded with offers. John Bracey and James Turner, two graduate students at Northwestern University in the 1960s, earned teaching posts at White colleges before they completed their doctoral programs. Bracey arrived at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1972, and Turner became the founding director of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University.

Biondi says there was widespread skepticism over whether the field was legitimate, and younger scholars questioned whether the discipline would in fact last. In its early days, students had a “strong preference for Black instructors,” says Biondi, and many professors like the late Dr. Ronald Takaki, who emerged as a renowned professor, were denied tenure at UCLA. 

Much of the criticism of Black studies has subsided in recent years. Currently, 11 colleges and universities provide Ph.D. programs, and more than a hundred colleges and universities offer students the opportunity to earn an undergraduate degree in Black studies.

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