Publication Date

November 1, 1989

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

The History Major


African American

The number of new Afro-American historians has decreased in recent years despite a steadily rising demand. At Duke University, for instance, black graduate student enrollment in history dropped from fourteen in 1975 to one in 1987. According to the American Council on Education, nationally, for all disciplines between 1976 and 1985, the number of blacks successfully finishing master’s degrees declined by 32 percent and doctorates (for black men) by 27 percent. While these reductions among graduate students are alarming, a more profound crisis appears to be unfolding at the undergraduate level where future Ph.D.s cut their first teeth.

The Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation reports that the number of black males completing the baccalaureate degree in that city’s two- and four-year colleges fell by one-sixth between 1978 and 1985. Of black males matriculating at Atlanta colleges in the academic year 1986–87, 76.2 percent had withdrawn or failed by the end of their first year.

One-Third of a Nation, issued last May by the Commission on Minority Participation in Education and American Life, points up that Atlanta’s experience is not isolated. For 1984–85, blacks comprised 9 percent of the undergraduate population nationwide, yet they earned only 6 percent of the baccalaureate degrees. During the same year, whites constituted 80 percent of the undergraduates and received 85 percent of all bachelor’s degrees. Thus, in the past decade, the pool of Afro-Americans, particularly men who might consider careers in academic history, has been significantly eroded.

What can we and our departments do to reverse this trend, attract new majors, and encourage them to enter the profession?

First, college faculty should champion the recommendations advocated in reports like the American Federation of Teachers’ Education for Democracy and the Bradley Commission’s Building a History Curriculum to augment the amount and quality of history taught in the schools. We must also work with secondary school colleagues to extend existing curricula, making it more comprehensive and enticing to students of all races and backgrounds.

In particular, to promote a fuller understanding of the past, we need to encourage more multicultural history. The experiences of minorities enrich the full sweep of American history and should not be confined to special days or “they were there too” approaches. Black history month properly calls attention to specific achievements and instills racial pride; however, the figures posted on bulletin boards or highlighted by the media yield neither appreciation nor understanding. As Paul Gagnon eloquently argued in the November 1988 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, for American history to be intelligible, it must be clearly rooted in the historic past and tied to the larger world. We cannot hope to recruit black students as majors with an incomplete curriculum at either the secondary or the collegiate level.

There have been encouraging signs of dedication to fostering a broadened curriculum in my home state of Virginia. For the past several years, the Virginia Society for History Teachers, an organization of school teachers and university faculty, has included specific multicultural sessions on its annual program. They detail both current research and teaching strategies, and many ideas have been incorporated into the classroom. One important spinoff has been a richer variety of Afro-American topics for History Day among students of diverse backgrounds.

Another positive development is an interdisciplinary seminar for secondary teachers offered this summer by history and literature faculty at James Madison University. Funded by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Matriarchs to Feminists: Women in Southern Literature and History,” highlights the contributions of Southern women, black and white, across the two disciplines. Participants will share ideas, explore materials and methods, and pilot them in classes starting next fall. Such cooperative ventures build new bridges between college and secondary school faculty and promise enduring curricular impact.

An idea still germinating is to identify local Afro-American high school students with an aptitude for history and establish mentor relationships with them. College faculty and students would meet individually with an area secondary school student to visit sites and classes and generally share a common fascination for the discipline. We hope to start on a small scale this fall.

The observations thus far suggest general strategies designed to draw qualified Afro-American high school students to the undergraduate history major. In the space remaining, I want to shift discussion to more concrete examples drawn from my own institution’s experiences. Like most comparable institutions, James Madison University vigorously recruits minority students. The office of admissions participates in programs throughout the region, employs a student minority recruitment committee to coordinate visitations, and sponsors a special Black Awareness Weekend each fall which brings nearly one thousand Afro-American high school students and their families to campus. For the past five years, I have spoken with students and parents who have expressed interest in the humanities and social sciences. In my remarks, I emphasize the absolute need for black faculty in every discipline and communicate our failed efforts to attract more. (The department has had eight openings since 1985 and has successfully recruited one black to a tenure-track position.) I share with them “Recruiting, Retaining, and Creating Black Faculty,” from Academic Leader, in which Reginald Wilson of the American Council on Education challenges departments to develop more minority scholars as the best long-range solution to the crisis. The message is simple and usually leads to extended discussion.

Though there has been no stampede to enlist, the students listen attentively and ask thoughtful questions. Their apprehensions center on cost, time commitment, and—the most difficult to answer precisely—what college faculty actually do. The sessions are followed up with personal letters inviting students to the department for individual meetings. Black students accepted into the freshman class return in late spring for a second weekend sponsored by the admissions office and the Black Student Alliance. Students arriving on Friday are encouraged to attend a class; however, those who cannot are welcome to visit at their convenience. If they wish, students may also tour the department, visit our microcomputer lab, and meet with faculty.

After students matriculate, we work diligently at retention. Since 1983, the university has sponsored a Transition Program for targeted students of all races at the lower end of the entering class. They are asked to enroll in a six-week summer session structured to ease the adjustment to university life. Each student must take two courses and attend special workshops and seminars to promote better study skills, improve written and oral communication, and enhance self-confidence. The first semester of the core history course (World Civilization to 1650) is offered in this program and has attracted three new majors in the last two years. More than 180 students who have taken part in the program have either completed degree requirements or are progressing satisfactorily toward graduation. Only sixteen students have withdrawn and another twenty have been suspended for academic deficiencies. Funded through the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SHEV), the program has been a great success.

Transition students and their classmates enter a rigorous undergraduate major emphasizing research and writing. Suggested research topics in most classes complement traditional warhorses and whet the intellectual appetites of all students. The British survey has emphasized analyses of family; theories and applications of colonial rule in Africa; race and class relations; and comparative history While the modern Europe survey has included James Baldwin’s life in exile. With a little sensitivity and creativity, similar paper topics can be prepared for almost any subject field. In selecting readings and in ordering for the library, multi-cultural materials bring a vibrant perspective to standard themes. They allow students to interpret fresh areas and focus attention on the interdependence of the world’s regions thereby helping students to overcome tunneled insularity.

The State Council assists departmental and institutional initiatives with a strong program to encourage Afro-Americans to enter graduate school in the state. Each November, switching back and forth between Virginia State and Norfolk State universities, more than five hundred currently enrolled minority students from state colleges and universities attend the SCHEV Conference for Potential Graduate Students. Established to provide information about graduate education and financial aid in the state, the two-day conference includes workshops, lectures, and special presentations by each graduate school. I have represented James Madison University at four conferences, moderating discussions not unlike the presentation for incoming freshmen described earlier. To supplement the annual conference, SCHEV sponsors Summer Programs for Undergraduate Virginians. Black undergraduates are selected to enroll in special summer classes set up to provide a taste of graduate education. Students are nominated by their institutions, based upon academic performance and interest in pursuing a career in higher education. Those accepted receive full scholarships, housing, meal allowances, and a weekly stipend to take six hours of coursework. Open only to Virginia residents, classes are held either at the University of Virginia or Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. White Virginians may attend similar programs at the state’s traditionally black institutions. For both groups, the program’s purpose is to increase minority applications to Virginia’s graduate schools. While these programs are costly, it demonstrates the state’s genuine commitment to expand the pipeline.

Each of us has a unique role to play in recruiting and nurturing minority historians. I have touched all too briefly on some of the ideas and strategies in place or under consideration at James Madison University. We believe we are obligated to recruit Afro-Americans to the undergraduate major, offer them the best possible instruction coupled with the most challenging curriculum, and prepare them for admission to graduate programs matched to their interests and capabilities. Our modest effort is doomed to fail unless it is matched and exceeded by institutions across the nation. The problem cannot be left to one individual or a few. Departments everywhere should use public forums, professional newsletters, and every other occasion to open an exchange, share knowledge and information, and define what each is able to contribute. We must acknowledge that a profound crisis exists and work conscientiously to bring about a meaningful and lasting change.

Michael Galgano

James Madison University