Anthropology and HBCUs
In 1937, African American anthropological pioneer, Mark Hanna Watkins, wrote a short article titled, “A Case for Anthropology in the Negro College,” in which he cited anthropology’s four-field perspective as a potentially crucial instrument for the liberation of oppressed racial minorities (The Quarterly Review of Higher Education Among Negroes 5: 60-64). At this time, however, black scholars still largely perceived anthropology as a colonial science in which people of color were often pejoratively treated as objects of study rather than collaborators or actual anthropologists. This perception of anthropology led Walter Chivers, in 1943, to explore strategies for teaching anthropology that would avoid offenses to African American sensibilities (Teaching Social Anthropology in a Negro College. Phylon 4 : 353-361). These authors recognized the potential power of anthropological knowledge in the formulation of more informed and objective discussions on race. Yet, they both had the burden of trying to convince a skeptical community to embrace a discipline that did not always make their plea an easy one. In fact, while making their cases for increased anthropological offerings at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), both Chivers and Watkins appropriated some of the very same language concerning assumed European cultural supremacy that worked to relegate anthropology to a marginal status within HBCUs.
In spite of the ambivalent relationship between African Americans and the discipline of anthropology at that time, a handful of African American scholars pursued doctoral study in anthropology (between the 1920s and early1950s) and made significant contributions to the discipline, as well as to the HBCUs where they often matriculated and/or taught: Allison Davis and St Clair Drake (Hampton Institute); Caroline Bond Day (Atlanta U, Howard U); W Montague Cobb, Louis Eugene King, and William S Willis, Jr (Howard U); Mark Hanna Watkins (Prairie View State C, Fisk U and Howard U); Ellen Irene Diggs (Morgan State C, Atlanta U); Lawrence Foster (Lincoln U, Cheney U); Manet Fowler (Tuskegee Institute); Zora Neale Hurston (Morgan Academy, Howard U); and Hubert Ross (Atlanta U, Lincoln U) (Ira E Harrison and Faye V Harrison, 1999, African American Pioneers in Anthropology).
These pioneers gained their academic footing in the context of black colleges. Thus, in spite of a lack of anthropology courses, programs, departments, and faculty, HBCUs represented a significant pipeline for African Americans entering the discipline – a trend that has persisted through the years in spite of the broadened educational opportunities of the post-desegregation era. For example, within the current ranks of African American anthropologists are a significant number of HBCU alumni, including but likely not limited to: Alisha Winn (Bethune Cookman C); Leslie Woods (Florida A&M U); John Jackson, Joseph Jones and Rachel Watkins (Howard U); Jafari Allen, Jonathan Gayles, Ira Harrison and Elgin Klugh (Morehouse C); Angela Howell (Morgan State U); Michael Ralph (Morris Brown C); Riche´ Barnes, Khiara M Bridges, Marla Frederick, and Bridgett Rahim-Williams (Spelman C).
Indeed, HBCUs and the discipline of anthropology continue to be important to each other. As further evidence, consider the fact that at least three anthropologists have served as HBCU presidents: Johnetta Cole (Spelman C and Bennett C), Irma McClaurin (Shaw U), and Niara Sudarkasa (Lincoln U). Moreover, a preliminary inventory reveals 19 anthropologists currently serving as HBCU faculty members: Sybil Rosado (Benedict C), Jacquelyn Robinson (Central State U), Elgin Klugh (Coppin State U), Alisha Winn (Fayetteville State U), Olugbemi Moloye and Nzingah Metzger (Florida A&M U), Eleanor King, Arvilla Payne-Jackson, and Flordeliz Bugarin (Howard U), Emmanuel D Babatunde (Lincoln U), Larry Ross (Lincoln U, Missouri), Angela Howell (Morgan State U), David Johnson and Tanya Price (North Carolina A&T U), Darryl White, Erica Lorraine Williams, Jerry Wever and Michelle Hay (Spelman C), and Velesta Jenkins (Wiley C).
According to the data published by The White House Initiative on HBCUs, there are 102 HBCUs in the country. Yet, the total number of HBCUs that offer any anthropology courses is only 40 out of these 102 institutions, or 39%. Further, 73% of those 40 institutions only offer 1-2 courses in anthropology. With the disbanding of Howard University’s program, only two institutions, Spelman College and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, offer degrees in anthropology (combined with sociology). And, there are only four institutions that offer a minor in anthropology: Coppin State University, Florida A&M University, Morgan State University, and North Carolina A&T University.
In spite of anthropology’s limited presence on HBCU campuses, HBCUs are a resource for diversity in anthropological personnel, perspectives, and influence. Collectively, they have the ability to increase the number of African Americans and other minorities entering into the discipline, which is vital given that African Americans constitute roughly 3% of the AAA membership (based on a rather pitiable measure of the total membership of the Association of Black Anthropologists versus overall association membership).
Their history, student characteristics, and overall learning environments uniquely position HBCUs to give voice to a number of perspectives that would add texture to the anthropological canon. Additionally, advancing anthropology at HBCUs would benefit many students who will not become professional anthropologists. Exposure to the discipline and its critical insights can greatly influence various courses of study and career trajectories – an immeasurable and perhaps exponential effect.
Questions of HBCU relevance are irrelevant for those of us in the “trenches.” We witness the critical ways that these institutions positively impact students, families, and communities. Fostering the development of anthropology at HBCUs should be seen as an integral part of a decolonizing agenda – helping to effectively dislodge the epistemological grip that TWIs (Traditionally White Institutions) have when it comes to generating disciplinary discourse. Our hope is that a critical mass of HBCU faculty, and other interested parties, can engage in conversations on effective strategies to promote anthropology at HBCUs.
Angela Howell is a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor at Morgan State University. Her research interests include African American identity, youth culture, and education.
Elgin Klugh is a cultural anthropologist and associate professor at Coppin State University. His research interests include heritage, landscape and spatial studies, and community development.
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