Publication Date

May 22, 2024

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam, Long Overdue


  • United States

Susie Lee Owens Bryant was one of the first African American women to earn a PhD in history, but as with many scholars of her generation whose academic career was spent in historically Black colleges and universities, especially those who left academia before its integration, her pathbreaking work as a historian of Reconstruction has been largely forgotten.

Susie Lee Owens was born February 5, 1905, in Oxford, North Carolina. Her father, Samuel, was a tobacco factory worker from Oxford when he met her mother, Louise Usher, in South Carolina, shortly before the turn of the century. The pair had moved back to Oxford by the time of Susie’s birth, and they went on to be fairly successful, owning their own home and Louise later managing a café.

Owens earned a BA from Howard University in 1928. She put her degree to work through the early 1930s as a schoolteacher in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she also coached a girls’ basketball team that won the state championship. She went to New York to earn an MA at Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1937 and almost immediately began work toward a PhD at New York University under the supervision of Henry Steele Commager. While at NYU, Owens was a co-founder of the James Weldon Johnson Literary Society. She completed her dissertation (who supervised it after Commager left in 1939 is not clear) in 1943.

Owens’s dissertation, “The Union League of America: Political Activities in Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Virginia, 1865–1870,” was the first and, until Austin Marcus Drumm’s 1955 dissertation and Michael Fitzgerald’s 1989 book, the only full-length study of this crucial organization that linked political support for the Civil War in the North with mobilization of freedmen in the South during Reconstruction. Her study, inspired directly by W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935), took a different and much more negative view of the Union League, in some ways anticipating a postrevisionist position. While not blaming the freedpeople, she did argue that “the [Union League of America] and its affiliated organizations are responsible for the creation of the so-called Solid South; for the intensification of race antagonism; for the delaying of political reconstruction; for the retarding of economic recovery for the masses; and for many of the distorted stories about the Negro race which are now accepted as truisms.” Later historians of Reconstruction from the 1960s onward have sometimes cited her work to draw on its extensive research in Union League publications and newspapers, though few agreed with its conclusions.

After completing her PhD, Owens, who at some point married North Carolina native William Cullen Bryant, taught briefly at Winston-Salem Teachers College in 1944–45 before taking a position at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College by 1946. There Owens Bryant was professor of history and coordinator of graduate studies and research in social sciences; she was also affiliated with the political science department.

Owens Bryant left Nashville and academia in 1958 for family reasons and moved to Englewood, New Jersey, where she worked for the Urban League. She was on the board of directors of the Englewood branch and was chair of its educational committee, but her influence extended much further. In 1965, to respond to the problem of African American youth dropping out of the school system, she originated the “street academy” program, a community-based alternative to steer young people away from delinquency and help them gain educational credentials and, in some cases, prepare them for college. Although always fighting a lack of resources, it was an influential model in the late 1960s and the 1970s, and in 1972, the Urban League awarded Owens Bryant the Whitney Young Award in recognition.

Owens Bryant retired in 1973, and she spent the remainder of her life in Englewood, New Jersey. She was an active member of the First Baptist Church and chaired its Chapel of the Four Children Scholarship and Education Fund, which helped fund higher education in memory of the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Owens Bryant died on March 23, 1986.

Bruce E. Baker
Newcastle University

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