Creation of African American Studies at Emory
The history of African American Studies at Emory reflects the change and growth of the University. In 1968, African American undergraduates called for the creation of a Black Studies Program at Emory. Their demand was part of a nation-wide student struggle to expand the curriculum of higher education in the United States. Emory responded by engaging in a campus-wide discussion of the philosophy and goals of its curriculum and creating the Sub-Committee on Afro-American Studies within the Curriculum Committee. In May 1969, the sub-committee voted unanimously to begin the “operation of a quality Afro-American Studies Program.”
In September 1971 the Black Studies Program began its first year under the leadership of Delores P. Aldridge, the emeritus Grace Towns Hamilton Professor of Sociology and African American Studies. Emory’s program was the first undergraduate degree program in African American Studies in the Southeast. Over the decades, the program shifted to accommodate new intellectual energy. In March 1980, Black Studies expanded to Afro-American Studies and African Studies, offering courses about the African continent as well as the diaspora. In 1984, the name was amended to African American and African Studies. In 1992, the program split into two independent undergraduate programs, African Studies and African American Studies. And in Fall 2003, the Program in African American Studies became the Department of African American Studies, with the power to hire and tenure its own faculty.
Leadership of African American Studies
Professor Aldridge served as Founding Director of the Program from 1971 until 1990. For her many years of dedication, Professor Aldridge received the Thomas Jefferson Award in 1992, Emory University’s highest award for service. She was subsequently awarded the Grace Towns Hamilton Chair, the first chair named for an African American woman and the first endowed chair in African American Studies in the United States. Following Professor Aldridge as Director were two interim directors: Robert Tomlinson, Professor of French, from 1990-1991, and Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, Candler Professor Education, 1991-1992. Rudolph P. Byrd, then Associate Professor of American Studies in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts, accepted the College’s invitation to serve as the full-time Director of the Program in the summer of 1991, retaining that position until 2000, except for a year in which Thee Smith, Associate Professor of Religion, served as Interim Director while Professor Byrd was on leave. Mark Sanders, then Associate Professor of English, shepherded African American Studies from program to department during his tenure as Director and then Chair, 2000-2004. Leslie Harris, Associate Professor of History and African American Studies served as Chair from 2004-2008. Currently, Mark Sanders is serving as Chair of African American Studies.
Impact of African American Studies
African American Studies at Emory has had an important impact on the intellectual life of the university community. The commitment of the College to the study of African Americans has resulted in the hiring of top core and associated faculty in the departments of History, Music, English, Religion, Sociology, Art History, Anthropology, ILA, Political Science, and Women Gender and Sexuality Studies.
Additionally, African American Studies has been central in supporting conferences, lectures and other events that enrich and enliven the campus. The Grace Towns Hamilton Lecture has been hosted annually by the department every spring since 1989. The lecture series honors the life and legacy of Grace Towns Hamilton, a native Atlantan and, in 1966, the first African American woman elected to a state legislature in the Deep South and the first African American to be elected to the Georgia State Legislature since Reconstruction. Speakers have included Ted Shaw, Chief General Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Barbara Chase-Riboud, poet, novelist, sculptor; and Mary Frances Berry, legal scholar and former chairperson of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
The Department also sponsors the Keynote Lecture for the annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Week celebration at Emory University. Previous speakers have included civil rights activists, musicians, and historians including Bernice Johnson Reagon, Vincent Harding, Elaine Brown, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, and Melissa Harris-Perry.
African American Studies has co-sponsored, with Women Gender and Sexualities Studies, the annual Race and Gender Lecture each fall since 1996. This lecture series was inaugurated by feminist author and academic bell hooks. Other speakers have included anthropologist Leith Mullings, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. And the department co-sponsors the annual Phillis Wheatley Creative Writers Series with the Creative Writing Program. Speakers have included Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Edward P. Jones and Colson Whitehead, poets Elizabeth Alexander, Nikky Finney, Allison Joseph, and our own Natasha Trethewey, Pulitzer-Prize winner and U.S. Poet Laureate.
Since 2000, when Professor Byrd established the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program at Emory, African American Studies has worked closely with MMUF to advance the shared goal of increasing the number of historically underrepresented groups in the academy. (Indeed, even before establishing our own program, African American Studies helped to host the Mellon Mays Summer Institute for UNCF-Mellon affiliated schools.) MMUF offers a two-year fellowship that supports research and general preparation for graduate studies in Mellon-designated fields.
In 2002, African American Studies joined with Special Collections to sponsor “Without Sanctuary: Racial Violence in America,” an interdisciplinary conference on racial violence that garnered an international audience. In 2005, African American Studies joined with Special Collections, the Music Department and other departments and programs on campus for the conference “In Celebration of William Levi Dawson: An Exploration of African American Music and Identity at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century.”