This post is part of our online roundtable on Black Women and the Politics of Respectability.
More than fifty years after her death, the professional experiences of Roger Arliner Young (1899–1964) continue to resonate with many women of color in the academy. Young was the first black woman to earn a doctorate in zoology (1940). The daughter of a coal miner and a housekeeper, Young moved through multiple social worlds—from the violent segregation of the Jim Crow South, to the black middle- and professional-class societies of Washington, D.C. and Durham, to the elite white laboratories of the biological sciences. The politics of respectability marked her life profoundly. Young’s activism on behalf of black working-class communities, in particular, drew the ire of black elites in Durham and led to long-term unemployment. While she achieved internationally recognized success for her research on the effects of X-rays on paramecia before she had even attained the level of doctorate, Young’s story has been used as a “cautionary tale” for black women in science. However, I reject that characterization of her life because, though she died alone and penniless, she was an influential researcher, educator, and activist.
Young originally enrolled at Howard to study music in 1916. But, after demonstrating an aptitude for science, she was recruited into biology by the prominent black scientist who would become her mentor, Ernest Everett Just (1883–1941). Young’s 1924 publication on paramecia appeared in the “Discussion and Correspondence” section of Science, the premier general science journal in the United States. That research drew the praise of senior scholars in her field around the world. She used her meager savings to finance her Master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1926. In the late 1920s, Just appointed Young acting chair of the department of zoology while he was conducting research abroad. She also enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Chicago.
Because of the pressure Young faced to complete her PhD and return to Howard, she sat for her qualifying exams just three months after starting her studies at Chicago and while still serving as chair in DC. Given that her attention was divided, it is unsurprising that she failed the examination. However, her failure was a particularly difficult blow. Not only was Young studying under Just’s former mentor, prominent white biologist Frank R. Lillie, but the future of Howard’s science programs depended on the success of young black scientists at predominantly white institutions. In a letter to Lillie, Young was reluctant to name the gendered and racialized institutional burdens she carried. But, she implied that her problems related to “responsibilities that were not wholly mine but were not shared.”1 Young might have worried she would threaten both her and Just’s scientific respectability if she revealed how much of the administrative work she was handling on his behalf. Unfortunately, Lillie, a member of the American Eugenics Society, saw Young’s failure as a sign of her lack of “fitness” for a science career and refused to continue working with her.
After Young returned to Howard, her relationship with Just was never the same. Perhaps from his perspective, she had not only let him, Howard, and their funders down, but she had let the race down by compromising the respectability of black scientists. Though he seemed bent on pushing her out, Just continued needing Young’s labor. So, he scheduled her to teach at odd times of the day, blocked her access to scientific equipment, and became too busy to give her feedback on her research. Unlike Lillie’s swift rejection of Young, Just’s attack took place over years. He sent her condescending memos creating a paper trail that painted Young as disruptive to Howard’s smooth teaching and research operation. In May of 1935, Young directly addressed Just’s apparent hostility toward her. Cuttingly, she wrote: “You seem to be making a deliberate effort to keep me from doing any research work while in residence in your department. This type of thing is so averse to a true scientific or real university spirit that for a long time I have tried not to believe that it is the correct expression of your sincere attitude.”2 Despite her demands for respect, Just had slowly built a case against Young. When the opportunity presented itself in 1936, he fired her.
Finally unburdened by her obligations at Howard, Young successfully completed her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania in 1940 under Lewis V. Heilbrunn, a white mentor she met at Woods Hole. After she graduated, Young was immediately hired by North Carolina College for Negroes. She moved into the vibrant Hayti District of Durham. Though she was paid $700 less per year at NCC than at Howard, she wrote to a former colleague that she found the environment “very much pleasanter.”3 However, Young did not escape the politics of respectability in her new community. In the 1940s, despite the changing times, an entrenched group of black businessmen who served as an unelected city council for black Durhamites remained tied to class and gender-based modes of respectability, as they had historically relied on them to repress labor organizing in the city to maintain a fragile peace with white capitalists. Young soon found herself in conflict with “Black Wall Street.”
Though Young had been engaged in good works for years, her activism in Durham seems to have been catalyzed by the 1944 murder of PFC Booker T. Spicely, who was shot by a white bus driver after refusing to move to the back of the bus. That year, Young joined the NAACP and, in collaboration with Ella Baker at the national headquarters, she challenged the leadership of the Hayti District. Like many others during the 1940s, Young’s Civil Rights activism paired voter registration and labor organizing. Though she was working full-time, now as chair of the biology department at Shaw University in Raleigh, Young took a paid position with the Tobacco Workers International Union (TWIU). In her free time, she traveled all over North Carolina to register voters and recruit workers. Young was even arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus on one of her early morning trips in 1946. But, Young became increasingly, and vocally, dissatisfied with what she saw as “undemocratic” leadership in the NAACP and the TWIU. By 1947 she was cast out of the unions and black-listed by the Hayti businessmen for her labor organizing. No longer employable in North Carolina, and perhaps at HBCUs in other states that were under the far-reaching influence of “Black Wall Street,” Young was forced to move more than a thousand miles to Texas before she could find work within academia.
Little is known about Young’s life after she left Durham. In the early 1950s she found work at Bishop College and then at Paul Quinn University. She was now struggling with mental and physical health problems, perhaps due to years of exposure to UV light, and she was in dire financial circumstances. In 1955, Young reached out to an old colleague from Howard, Dr. Paul Murray, and asked: “What can I do? I’ve driven myself for 25 years.” Though she felt desperate, Young understood the structural nature of her problems: “I have no money for medical care. No relatives and a deep fear of the institutions down here. I’ve read in the paper that they are inadequate for whites.”4 Eventually, in 1960, Young found work at Jackson State University. Though she was listed in the course catalogue for 1961–1963, Just’s biographer, Kenneth Manning, reports that Young voluntarily committed herself to the Mississippi State Mental Asylum and was released on December 21, 1962. After her release, Young started a position at Southern University, in New Orleans. By June she was having difficulty paying her rent and was sued several times. On November 9, 1964, Young died at Charity Hospital in New Orleans.
As a black woman from the working class, Young’s success was at least partly contingent on her ability to assume the postures and gestures of a “respectable” woman. But, what counted as respectable varied widely across the spaces she moved through and across her lifetime. Respectability politics defined Young’s career trajectory. For example, the ideology of individualism, which shaped the politics of respectability at both Howard University and the University of Chicago, constrained her ability to navigate gendered and racialized institutional relationships. The paradigm of eugenics common among biological scientists during her early career marked Young as unfit for science. Later, Young’s union organizing among the working classes outside the university clashed with the respectability politics of elite black capitalists who were in positions of power in Durham. We owe it to the memory of Roger Arliner Young, and the many unnamed others who were profoundly stifled by past forms of respectability politics, to advance critiques that enable more liberatory politics of collective “uplift” in our communities. To borrow Victoria Wolcott’s expression, we must imagine how we might “remake respectability” such that black women in academe, indeed all women of color, are able to engage in justice-oriented projects without compromising their physical, mental, and economic health.
Click here to read the journal article on which this guest post is based.
- Roger Arliner Young to Frank R. Lillie, n.d., Frank R. Lillie Papers, Box 6, Folder 27, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library. ↩
- Young to Just, May 6, 1935, Box 125-9, Folder 158, Moorland Springarn Research Center, Howard University. ↩
- Young to Hanson, February 22, 1943, Box 103, Folder 938, Series 1, General Education Board Archives, RAC. ↩
- Roger Arliner Young to Peter Murray, March 1, 1955, Box 125-9, Folder 158, Moorland Springarn Research Center, Howard University. ↩