Publication Date

April 1, 1994

Over the past seven years, the Department of History of the University of Florida (UF) has been educating itself about the role of minorities in the historical profession. What began in the mid-1980s as a seemingly simple effort to recruit African American faculty became transformed into a wide-ranging program of self-education. Still actively seeking to recruit minority faculty, the department has found itself engaged in a variety of activities designed to bring UF faculty and students into regular contact with minority scholars, to encourage minority high school and college students to contemplate professional careers in history, and to help address the nationwide shortfall in the numbers of African American historians. By 1993, the department had brought prominent African American historians to campus for talks and consultations on a regular basis, had conducted summer preprofessional undergraduate and preundergraduate programs, and, in conjunction with the Florida Endowment Fund, had conducted a unique faculty recruitment program. The past three chairs of the department, along with a minority affairs committee, have established minority affairs as one of the department's central foci.

The key event in the department's development of these program was a two-day conference held in Gainesville in May 1990. Efforts to recruit African American faculty had proved disappointing. The department's searches had highlighted the sharply declining numbers of Ph.D.'s being awarded to blacks and other minorities. The Gainesville conference brought together about fifty scholars, teachers, administrators, and foundation officials from around the country to help us address two problems: How could the department most productively recruit African Americans and other minority faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates and how could the department and the University of Florida contribute to increasing the presence of minorities in the historical profession more generally?

With funding from the university, the department invited such scholars as Louis Harlan, then president of the American Historical Association, Earl Lewis of the University of Michigan, and Joe W. Trotter of Carnegie Mellon University; faculty members from several traditionally black colleges in the Southeast; officials from the Pew Educational Trust and the Mellon Foundation; staff members from the AHA; representatives of sister Florida colleges and universities, including the community colleges; and UF faculty and administrators. The most significant finding emerging from the conference's freewheeling discussions was that our concerns about the national crisis in minority representation in history were widely shared. While sympathetic to UF's specific efforts to recruit minority faculty and students, most outside participants urged us to focus on broadening opportunities for minorities in history generally. We should, they believed, avoid faculty raiding and concentrate on efforts to attract young people into history and direct our attentions to helping young minority degree candidates earn the Ph.D.

Since then, the department has sought in a variety of ways to implement these recommendations. The precollegiate and collegiate scholars' programs, described below, are aimed at helping minority students make informed choices about career prospects. The department has maintained its minority historians' speakers program and intensified its involvement with a variety of college- and university-wide initiatives designed to highlight cultural diversity.

The McKnight Minority Fellowships

The department's most significant response to the need to nurture young minority scholars has been the launching of the McKnight Faculty Fellowship program in 1990. This initiative was developed by then-chair Kermit Hall, in conjunction with Dean Willard Harrison of our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Israel Tribble of the Florida Endowment Fund (FEF). The McKnight Faculty Fellowship program provides for the funding of two positions at entry assistant professor salary levels. The FEF and the University of Florida each contribute 50 percent of the salary money, with the university also picking up the normal fringe benefits. Candidates are to be minority ABDs who have made some progress in the writing of the dissertation. Each is to be appointed for a two-year term, with temporary faculty status. Fellows are spared departmental advising and governance responsibilities and are asked to teach one course during each of the two years. Having in the meantime completed the dissertation within the two-year tenure, and following the normal sort of review, the fellow will be offered a tenure-track position in the department, with tenure accumulation for the fellowship period optional for the faculty member.

Through the program, it was hoped that the department could identify and attract promising young historians. We felt that the terms of the McKnight program fulfilled the conference's injunction that we play a broad nurturing role, since the program provided young scholars with unique salary and free-time opportunities to facilitate the completion of the dissertation and to do so within a collegial environment. At the same time, the university and its students would benefit from both the teaching and the general presence of these young scholars. We hoped that the experience during the fellowship period would be sufficiently positive that the young scholars, having completed the Ph.D., would desire to remain at the University of Florida as they launched their full professional careers.

We also reasoned that even if, after two years, some McKnight Fellows chose to move on, we would still have played a positive role in the achievement of their professional goals. We would be helping to broaden opportunities for young minority historians. We hoped also that even if McKnight Fellows did choose to continue their careers elsewhere, their feelings about the University of Florida might remain positive and that they might help us in the subsequent recruitment of faculty and graduate students.

With these thoughts and expectations in mind, the department conducted its first McKnight Fellow search in the spring of 1990. The result was the appointment of two splendid young historians, Chana Lee of UCLA, whose work is in African American history, and John Mason of Yale University, a historian of southern Africa. Both fellows completed the dissertation within the stipulated period and both were offered tenure-track positions. Mason accepted and is now an assistant professor of history at the University of Florida. Lee decided to accept a position at Indiana University. Both regard the McKnight experience as a highly positive and important step in their respective careers. According to Mason, "The program was an excellent response to a pressing problem. … The results could hardly have been better." He added that "the McKnight fellowship program represents precisely the sort of strategy that colleges and universities will have to adopt if they are to confront the legacy and ongoing reality of racism."

For our department and college, the McKnight program has been both useful and frustrating. Certainly, we feel good about providing opportunities for young minority scholars. And any initiative that brings a historian of the caliber of John Mason to our campus has to be judged an outstanding success. Even our disappointment at losing Dr. Lee is tempered by the realization that we have played a role in the career of this outstanding young historian.

The frustrations reside in the fact that it has been difficult to sustain continuity in the program. The UF College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has been generous in guaranteeing its portion of the funding through the next decade with the hope that the program can be continued and maintained. Unfortunately, the FEF has thus far not been able to resume its funding arrangements. Its primary focus over the years has been encouraging graduate education, especially in the sciences. Its officers have been enthusiastic about the success of the fellowship program and remain interested in resuming support but have had to defer their financial commitment as the FEF restructures its funding priorities.

Recruiting Young Historians

The recruitment of young people into the historical professions has been a second major initiative deriving from the 1990 conference. In the spring of 1991, the department began two programs—the Pre-Collegiate Scholars Program and the Collegiate Scholars Program—designed to provide high school and undergraduate minority students with opportunities to learn about the historical profession. For three years now, the department has brought young people to the University of Florida for summer programs combining substantive historical study with encouragement to consider the history major (for the precollegiate participants) and graduate studies in history (for the collegiate scholars).

The purpose of the precollegiate program is to heighten interest in the study of history among college-bound minority high school students so that they will consider selecting history as their undergraduate major. In the pilot program for 1991, the department recruited three local secondary school teachers, and they in turn selected five interested students. The teachers received two hours of graduate level credit in history, $200 for expenses, and $400 for serving as mentors to the students during the school year. The students received a stipend to cover the costs of travel, meals, and other expenses.

The focus of the first on-campus institute was race and ethnicity in the United States. A study of the history of St. Augustine, Florida, served as an avenue for exploring the topic in detail. Members of the history department faculty worked simultaneously with both teachers and students for a one-week period. Four days of classroom study was followed by a trip to St. Augustine. The faculty included a specialist in southern race relations and an expert in Afro-Caribbean history during the Spanish colonial era. During the ensuing school year, participants expanded their summer study by developing projects within the school curriculum, using the materials they studied in the institute.

In the second year, the program was expanded. A three-year grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) enabled the department to assemble fifteen secondary school teachers and thirty students selected from Florida urban school districts with large minority populations.

The Collegiate Scholars also held its inaugural session in 1991, with an initial class of thirteen scholars. The goal of this program is to identify outstanding minority undergraduate history students and to encourage them to study history at the graduate level. The program consists of a summer institute at the University of Florida, academic year work with faculty members at the scholar's home institution, and assistance with graduate school applications and placement.

To be eligible for the program, minority students must be enrolled as college juniors, have a 3.0 grade point average in history or social science courses, and be either a history major or demonstrate a strong interest in history. The applications are accompanied by a statement of purpose and a letter of recommendation from the proposed faculty mentor. The director of the program, in consultation with the participating faculty members, then selects twelve or thirteen scholars from an applicant pool of approximately twenty-two candidates.

In three years the program has been fortunate in choosing thirty-seven young scholars from institutions around the country. The most recent class included eleven African Americans and one Asian student, six male and six female. The students have come from such diverse institutions as the University of Virginia, Wake Forest University, Morehouse College, Bethune-Cookman College, Edward Waters College, the University of Florida, South Carolina State University, the University of Alabama at Huntsville, Wayne State University, and Virginia Commonwealth University.

The University of Florida waives tuition charges for six credit hours of academic work, and all room and board expenses are borne by the program. Scholars are housed in three comfortable, furnished, four-person apartments near the campus. Here they each have a private bedroom and study area but share kitchen facilities and a living area. This arrangement enables the students to interact and encourages after-class discussion of academic work. The students also get the cost of round-trip transportation up to $350, a stipend of $600 to cover incidental expenses, $100 for books, and a $1,000 assistantship for the academic year. The assistantship requires the student to do approximately six hours of research per week for their home-institution mentor. The program also pays travel and living expenses for a fall convocation. Thus, depending on variable travel costs, the average payment to a collegiate scholar is $3,300.

The intensive summer institute lasts six weeks and includes two three-hour courses. The seminar course is taught by University of Florida faculty and supplemented by guest lecturers. The topic of the 1991 seminar was "The Era of the Sixties." In 1992 the subject was "Race and Ethnicity in Modern America," while in 1993 the scholars studied "Race and Discrimination in Modern America."

The 1993 seminar was based on a series of readings, lectures, and discussions designed to provide the students with factual information necessary to understand the issues of race and discrimination. The students read four books, including Carl Degler's In Search of Human Nature and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as well as three dozen journal articles. The average daily reading requirement of about 125 pages gave participants a good overview of the subject and a healthy taste of the kinds of requirements prevalent in graduate work. Degler’s challenging work highlighted a section of the seminar led by Dr. Bob Hatch, a historian of science, in which the class discussed and evaluated various scientific theories of race and their impact on society and public policy. Ellison’s classic work encouraged reflections on the relationships between racism and personal identity.

The students responded enthusiastically to the heavy reading load. Class discussions were lively and thoughtful. In his formal evaluation of the course, one student applauded the amount of reading, concluding that the material he read would "stay with me for a lifetime. The more information presented, the better, because these materials help formulate opinions and alter positions already held."

In addition to required reading and class discussion, we asked the scholars to read an approved book of their choice and give both a written and an oral report on the book. They also had written assignments on oral history, newspapers, and government documents so that they could use these resources effectively in their research. We provided films such as Eyes on the Prize, guest speakers, notably Earl Lewis of the University of Michigan, and organized a field trip to St. Augustine. There the students saw a film on the 1964 racial disturbances in that city, heard an African American city councilman discuss the current state of race relations, and learned about historic preservation. Finally, we had an excellent presentation on the use and value of archival material by two staff members from the National Archives.

The second three-hour course was devoted to the writing of a twenty-five-page research paper. Prior to the summer institute, the faculty mentor at the home institution assisted the student with the selection of a topic and with exploratory research. While in Gainesville, the students were provided with guidelines for the paper. UF faculty helped them pursue additional research. After the students had returned home, and with continuing assistance from their mentors, they completed the papers. The finished papers were turned in on October 15 and our faculty evaluated them.

On October 30 the students and their mentors returned to Gainesville for a colloquium where they formally presented their papers to an audience of mentors, faculty, and peers. The papers covered topics such as "The Life and Status of Black Slaves among the Creeks, Seminoles, and Cherokees"; "Women in Slave Families: Virginia Plantations, 1850–1860"; "A Comparative Study of Black South Africans and African Americans from 1945 to 1950"; and "The Garvey Movement and the Ku Klux Klan: A Comparison of Nationalist Movements in the 1920s." The colloquium enabled the students to gain valuable experience in reading a formal paper. Responses to questions and comments from the audience forced them to clarify and defend their work. One of the 1992 Collegiate Scholars, Tywanna Whorley, now in graduate school at the University of Virginia, recently received an award for the best undergraduate paper for 1993 from the Society for the Study of African American Life. This paper evolved from the research paper she did for the Collegiate Scholars Program.

The Collegiate Scholars Program has had strong support from its advisory board which provides guidance to the director. The board, comprised of faculty members representing a variety of colleges and universities in the Southeast as well as a representative from the AHA, meets each year during the colloquium and discusses curriculum, funding, and other pertinent subjects. We also get excellent cooperation from the university mentors, seven of whom attended the 1993 conference.

From the beginning, the project has enjoyed the active support of the University of Florida administration. President John Lombardi (a Latin American historian) addressed the opening session, discussing history as a profession and commenting on the theme of racial diversity in a large state university. Dean Will Harrison of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has committed to faculty salaries for the summer institute for a period of ten years. In 1993, the dean's contribution totaled over $14,000. Vice Provost Gene Hemp provided out-of-state tuition fee waivers, which resulted in savings to the program of over $8,000. The university also covered photoduplication, telephone, and postal expenses, and provided secretarial support.

The program has benefited from a generous grant by the Pew Foundation ($81,000 for a three-year period) and a grant from the Summer Research Apprenticeship Program (SRAP) of the United States Department of Education. Unfortunately the Pew grant runs out in February 1994, and the SRAP money has been spent. The current plan is to secure funding for a period of at least three years to insure stability and facilitate long-range planning. To have a class of fifteen scholars, the program would need approximately $45,000 per year, or a total of $225,000 for a five-year period. In order to achieve this goal, the Division of Sponsored Research at the University of Florida provided money for the director to travel to foundations and granting agencies in search of new funds.

Clearly, the Collegiate Scholars Program has been successful thus far in achieving its stated goals. At present there are two former scholars enrolled with full scholarships in the Ph.D. program at the University of Florida. Another former scholar will enroll next year, and a fourth has deferred her acceptance until 1994. One scholar is on full scholarship at Princeton and another is at Virginia. Still another is in the graduate program at Miami of Ohio. Some "graduates" of the Collegiate Scholars Program are now completing their undergraduate degrees while others have opted for law school, library science, and seminary work. If we can maintain a rate of attracting five members of each class to first-rate graduate schools in history, we think the program will be doing an excellent job. Even if the students do not choose history, we think the program has taught them about diversity in America and has sharpened their intellectual skills for whatever career they may choose.

The challenges the program faces, in addition to continued funding, are to increase the number of high quality applicants and to make the program more interdisciplinary. Past success and more effective circulation of knowledge about the program are keys to the former. With regard to the latter, in future summers we plan to use faculty from American studies and anthropology, as well as Latin American and African history—all areas of particular strength at UF—to diversify the offerings.


Our minority affairs initiatives have taught us a good deal. The Pre-Collegiate Scholars, the Collegiate Scholars, and the McKnight Faculty Fellowship programs have broadened our knowledge. Our lecture series and our regular consultations with scholars active in the field have helped us remain in touch with a key aspect of our profession. Meeting and working with the wonderful undergraduate and high school students brought to our campus through the precollegiate and collegiate programs has been unusually enriching and heartening. Though we have not had the success we would have liked in actual faculty recruitment, we are working with the university administration on new approaches and are attempting to secure funding for an endowed chair in African American history.

Involvement with the minority communities has become a broadly supported initiative within the department. The minority affairs committee and the precollegiate and collegiate programs have brought a large cross-section of the department into active participation in this area. We believe that, quite apart from the tangible results of our various initiatives, the payoff in terms of our own increased understanding has been great.

—Julian Pleasants is an associate professor and Robert H. Zieger is a professor in the Department of History of the University of Florida.

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