Publication Date

November 16, 2020

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

AHA Topic

Professional Life

Lonnie Bunch III, a historian of the United States and the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian—a position that puts 19 of the nation’s most imposing museums and 21 of its libraries in his charge—first heard the name of another great American historian when he was still a child. Bunch recalls listening to his father describe “a history course he had taken at Shaw College in the 1940s” and, despite his youth, sensing from his father’s story the significance “of someone named John Hope Franklin. I am sure that he was the only historian my scientist father ever mentioned to me.”

The AHA and APA consider HBCU faculty to be valuable members of their constituencies.

The AHA and APA consider HBCU faculty to be valuable members of their constituencies. Hildabast/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

In fact, Bunch’s grandfather and both of his parents attended Shaw, the first Historically Black College or University (HBCU) founded, in 1865, in the American South. John Hope Franklin attended the second—Fisk University, founded in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1866—and later served as the first Black president of the American Historical Association. Connections between HBCUs and the AHA abound: not only have HBCUs played a vital role in American history; they have also helped train countless American historians. And yet HBCU faculty and students remain notably underrepresented in scholarly societies, including the AHA.

In 2017, the AHA’s special projects coordinator, Julia Brookins, set out to investigate the reasons for that underrepresentation and suggest some ways to rectify it. Her assignment grew out of a 2016 meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) at which the executive directors of the American Philosophical Association (APA) and the AHA found themselves in conversation about their organizations’ failures to attract members from HBCUs. The issue, they realized, was not trying to recruit members; it was about value and relationships. The AHA and APA were not benefiting sufficiently from what HBCU faculty could contribute to their work, nor were enough of those faculty able to access the value that the associations provide to members and conference attendees. With a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and in cooperation with the APA, the AHA began an initiative titled “Extending the Reach of Scholarly Society Work to HBCU Faculty.”

First, they appointed a steering committee comprised of three historians and three philosophers from HBCUs, who drafted a national survey to capture how fellow HBCU-based faculty view their own work and the work of scholarly societies. Making the survey accessible from December 2017 to February 2019 allowed the project to recruit more than 200 respondents from at least 49 institutions. Preliminary answers in hand—some surprising, some not; most having to do with the constraints of time and funds—the AHA and the APA began seeking practical ways to make opportunities for professional development more accessible to HBCU faculty. They convened more than 25 people in multiple focus groups and hosted eight HBCU faculty members (four historians and four philosophers) at the AHA annual meeting and an APA divisional meeting in 2019. As the project finished, the team identified next steps in the ongoing effort to bring HBCU scholars into closer contact with the AHA and APA, and to consider how those organizations might better serve HBCU faculty, their institutions, and their students. Some of these steps require better communication about the range of functions that the AHA and APA already perform; others require new partnerships and funding to meet the needs identified by HBCU faculty.

I got in touch with several of those faculty in mid-October, at the tail end of an election season that saw an HBCU graduate—Kamala Harris, Howard University class of 1986—running to become the nation’s first female vice president. Roughly 10 percent of African American college students attended one of the nation’s 101 active HBCUs in 2018, a percentage that appeared to be growing at a moment when overall college enrollments were in decline. HBCUs saw an uptick in admissions in 2019, a surge sometimes called “the Trump bump” and described by the New York Times as “a noticeable increase in students applying to and enrolling in historically black colleges and universities and women’s colleges over the past several years.”

“It was great to feel that I was ‘seen’ by the AHA.”

“We certainly have a historical mission,” Tony Frazier (North Carolina Central Univ.) told me when I asked about the role of HBCUs past and present. “Here at NCCU, our commitment to the historical profession is long-standing. The commitments to teaching and researching history remain hallmarks of our department, even without great resources. The history department here has produced over 100 alumni who have received the PhD in history.” Still, Frazier expressed concern that “because of the disconnect between HBCU history faculty and the AHA, a proper narrative of that tradition remains hidden.” One aim of “Extending the Reach of Scholarly Society Work to HBCU Faculty” is to bring that tradition out of hiding.

Reginald K. Ellis (Florida A&M Univ.) emphasized the unseen aspect of ties that could bind HBCUs to the AHA as well, calling the Association’s resources the “best kept secret” of the discipline. “As a faculty member of one of the largest HBCUs in the nation,” Ellis said, “I connect with fellow HBCU historians regularly, and the idea of seeking membership within the AHA very rarely comes up.” A member of the project’s steering committee, Ellis recalled that “when I left the townhouse in the summer of 2018, it was clear that a partnership with the AHA not only provides me opportunities to network with leading historical scholars; it offers additional supportive voices to advocate for the continuation of historical studies on black college campuses.” After his involvement in this project, Ellis ran for and was elected to the AHA Council.

Another of the project’s participants put the matter this way: “It was great to feel that I was ‘seen’ by the AHA.” She went on: “I’d been a member on and off, largely based on whether or not my home institution stressed AHA membership above others or offered funds to help defer the cost of membership and conference travel.” These were themes that reappeared throughout the project: the combination of the AHA’s failure to “see” HBCU faculty clearly or at all, and the financial barriers to full participation.

Making its way through my conversations with HBCU faculty was the delicate balance they walk day after day: recognizing the inequities faced by their students and fellow faculty without disregarding their equally significant achievements. As one participant (who asked to remain unnamed) put it: “The odds are against HBCU faculty. But we get in the ring nonetheless—to advance the work of our disciplines and for our students. The odds are against HBCU faculty—I don’t know how to acknowledge that while not undermining the reputation of HBCUs (there’s enough of that already), without slighting the stellar work that comes out of HBCUs. It’s tricky.” She concluded by stating a belief that is surely not hers alone but seems to capture a sense shared by many Americans in 2020: “This historical moment needs historians.” Including, she adds, historians at HBCUs.

HBCU faculty tend to participate in smaller scholarly societies with specialized research interests and lower membership fees.

The “odds” as this historian described them are borne out by replies from the survey respondents—more than three-quarters of whom reported departmental budgets that did not meet basic operating needs. Four courses per term seems to be a common teaching commitment among HBCU faculty, though some teach even more; 200 students per instructor per semester is not unusual, often without teaching assistants. Few of the respondents had received financial support to conduct and share their research; they lacked adequate funding for travel, conference fees, or accommodations, even when presenting their own work. Given those “odds,” the hopeful strain she concluded with is notable: “Partnerships and collaborations are exciting to think about as a pathway forward.”

This historian’s emphasis on collaboration echoed one of the project’s most valuable observations. HBCU faculty tend to participate in smaller scholarly societies with specialized research interests and lower membership fees. Such regional or research-specific conferences are generally more affordable to attend, and scholars believe they are more likely to have papers accepted for presentation and publication by smaller societies. The AHA’s annual meeting seldom meets in the South, tending to convene in cities that make attendance expensive, particularly for faculty and students with significant time and financial constraints. But survey respondents did not highlight only practical reasons for choosing one conference over another. Instead, their responses suggest an appetite for community. Going forward, the AHA will work to extend and strengthen a sense of belonging and support for all scholars working in the same or shared disciplines. As part of this project, the AHA hosted a networking event for HBCU faculty and alumni at the 2019 annual meeting in Chicago.

Finally, it is not enough for the AHA to look outward, charting the history of racism in the world beyond the townhouse doors. An organization that works and speaks on behalf of historians representing every period and geography—one incorporated by Congress with the stated purpose of promoting historical studies—has a responsibility to look inward as well, at the biases buried deep within its own institutional practices. The AHA will soon begin an initiative to document and confront its role in legitimating racism within the discipline and in promoting racist scholarship that had a deep and lasting influence on American public culture. The results of this initial stage will establish strategies for mapping the way forward.

“Extending the Reach of Scholarly Society Work to HBCU Faculty” made clear how much ground those maps will need to cover, and how widespread was the perception that the AHA and APA have little interest in welcoming their colleagues from HBCUs. But the project also provided new partners. It is not unusual, at the moment, to hear a refrain that “representation matters.” Considering the consequences of representation, Lonnie Bunch recalls: “I was in junior high and we were reading biographies of historic figures. I remember one on Gen. ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne, and one on Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix. I thought, ‘Were there no histories of black people?’ One day, I was going through my grandfather’s trunk, and I found a book about black soldiers in the First World War. I devoured it.” He now oversees an institution that, in his words, “treasures memory and scholarship and makes that knowledge accessible to millions.”

Sarah Fenton is contributing editor for the AHA. She tweets @skfenton.

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