Black Studies and the Story of Survival


In October 1969, sociology professor Nathan Hare spoke at a press conference at San Francisco State College, home of the first Black Studies Department in the United States. Speaking as a representative of the Black students that demanded a Black-centered curriculum, Hare noted the significance of the institution’s role: “This is where Black studies was born. And Black Studies can die here. So, we hope to save it and we will do whatever’s necessary to save Black Studies through San Francisco State College.”1 Hare’s statement was not hyperbole. Although over five-hundred colleges and universities established Black Studies programs or departments in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Black students and faculty had to fight for institutional support, resources, and academic legitimacy from its inception. In other words, the establishment of Black Studies represented a continuation – not an end – in the struggle to maintain these programs and departments. Black Studies professors relied on small but strong communities and networks throughout the U.S. to exchange resources and strategies to maintain Black studies into the 1970s. Several scholars have documented the establishment of Black Studies programs and departments, particularly at predominantly white institutions. Less coverage exists, however, on how Black students and faculty stabilized Black Studies during the struggles of the 1970s. Indeed, in addition to Hare, several professors and advocates framed their struggle for Black Studies as a fight to survive.

At Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, the Black Studies program’s fight for departmentalization represents this struggle for legitimacy and survival. During the Spring 1974 semester, Director of Afro-American Studies and Professor of Religion Walter Burford applied for department status at Duke. In addition to explaining the importance of Black Studies during the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and ‘70s, Burford and the Black Studies Committee submitted an appendix that included a description of the Slavic Languages and Literature Department; by all appearances, the Black Studies program was similar in size and student demand. The Undergraduate Faculty Council for Arts and Sciences (UFCAS) at Duke, however, rejected Burford and the Black Studies Committee’s proposal for departmentalization. The UFCAS claimed that a Black Studies department did not meet the institution’s academic integrity standards. When Burford and the committee asked the UFCAS to expand on their reasoning, the faculty council refused. In response, Burford and another Black Studies professor, Henry Olela, resigned from their positions as members of the committee in protest. Shortly after, William Turner continued Burford’s campaign for a Black Studies Department at Duke.

In Summer 1975, Turner re-submitted the proposal for department status. The updated document outlined many of the same “basic rationale(s)” but went further in its argument for Black Studies in a section titled “Legitimacy of Black Studies as a Departmental Field.” When speaking to the UFCAS, Turner and the committee argued that Black Studies “should not be tied to narrow or traditional perspectives.” Recognizing that claims to academic or scholarly integrity undermined departmentalization efforts, Turner asked reviewers to consider how Black Studies expanded disciplinary boundaries. At the same time, Black faculty at Duke spoke to the campus community with a sense of urgency and forced students to consider what would happen if Black Studies at Duke were to dissolve as a program. In turn, Turner and the committee called in Duke’s Black community, asking students, faculty, and staff to “determine how much Black Studies means to us and what if anything we are willing to do” to save it. Despite the continued fight for department status, the UFCAS again denied the Black Studies Committee’s request.

The story of Duke’s Black Studies fight for departmentalization is not unique. In fact, several departments experienced similar issues. Since the inception of Black-centered curriculum, organizations like Carter G. Woodson’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History have built networks to bring Black Studies to classrooms across the United States and the world. Yet, in the 1960s and ‘70s, Black Studies needed new organizations to meet the social and political moment. In 1969, scholars Vincent Harding and William Strickland established the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta for two primary reasons: to help Black political figures into elected office and support Black Studies programs and departments. According to historian Derrick E. White, “[university] Black Studies programs were the IBW’s foundation throughout its existence” in the 1970s.2 In 1975, the National Council for Black Studies formed to hold annual conferences and workshop opportunities for Black faculty trying to save programs and departments. While the IBW dissolved in the early 1980s, the NCBS continues the fight to expand Black Studies at colleges and universities across the United States. Finally, the Journal of Negro Education, established in the early 1930s, took seriously the push for Black Studies, also holding conferences and information-sharing campaigns to further develop the field and fight for academic legitimacy within predominantly white institutions until it closed in 2006.

Not only are Black Studies programs and departments fighting for survival, but the mechanisms to support Black Studies students and scholars struggle to survive as well.

Scholar Robin D.G. Kelley reminds us that today’s fight for Black Studies is not simply a culture war based on ideological differences, but a political battle for the control of American education – on and off-campus. “Black Studies was born out of a struggle for freedom and a genuine quest to understand the world in order to change it,” Kelley asserts, “presenting political and moral philosophy with their most fundamental challenge.”3 The renewed opposition to Black Studies is found in local and state legislation and sure to be a noteworthy issue during the upcoming presidential election cycle in 2024. Like Black Studies advocates and scholars before us, this is our opportunity to meet the moment and, as Turner says, determine how much Black Studies means to us and what we are willing to do to save it. Despite more than 500 pieces of legislation that seek to delegitimize and ban our work, our strength lies in the community that Black Studies scholars have relied on for more than a century.

  1. “Black Studies at SF State College,” KPIX, October 29, 1969. Bay Area Television Archive Digital Collection, J. Paul Leonard Library, San Francisco State College.
  2. Derrick E. White, The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2011) 6.
  3. Robin D.G. Kelley, “The Long War on Black Studies,” The New York Review, June 17, 2023.
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Brandon James Render

Brandon James Render is an assistant professor of history at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. His current book project, Colorblind University: A History of Racial Inequity in Higher Education, explores the intellectual genealogy of racial colorblindness throughout the twentieth century. He has been a member of the AAIHS since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter @brandonjrender.

Comments on “Black Studies and the Story of Survival

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    Fantastic post! The historic and ongoing struggle for Black Studies is institutional memory worthy of our study and preservation.

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    Good read.

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