Minority Faculty: The History Profession and the 21st Century

Elwood D. Watson, April 2000

It is hardly news to characterize the number of African Americans with PhDs as deplorably low. This is certainly true throughout the arts and humanities, including history.1 Nonetheless, history departments have been much more successful in hiring and maintaining African American scholars than have most other disciplines in academia. This fact is particularly true at many of our nation's most prestigious institutions. Among 28 of the nation's top-ranked colleges and universities, there are currently 57 African American faculty members. These 57 historians make up 6.3 percent of the 904 faculty at these institutions.2 This fact somewhat dispels the long-held myth that history is an unyielding white, male, closed discipline. There are a number of possible reasons as to why history departments have been either more willing or more successful in hiring African American scholars. One major reason is the fact that history in the United States has a major Black component. The history of African Americans has had a profound impact on the events of the nation as a whole.

Despite such inspiring news, reality cannot obscure the profound racial stereotyping that manifests itself in many history departments. Just as African American scholars who have made inroads into faculty positions in English departments primarily teach courses in African and African American literature, historians who are Black are hired by many universities, particularly the more prestigious ones, to teach courses in African or African American history.3

I am an assistant professor of history at a regional state university located in Appalachia. I am in my third year of a tenure-track position, and just recently earned my PhD in U.S. history. Being able to secure a tenure-track position at ABD status in a profession where such jobs are few and far between is almost a minor miracle. This fact has not been lost on me, and I feel tremendously fortunate. Every day, I remind myself that I could have graduated into a market that had no need for my services or no means to employ me. Like so many today, I could be serving as an adjunct professor, wishfully waiting for that elusive tenure-track

Instead, in August 1997, I was hired by my department to teach 20th-century U.S., African American, and women's history at a college that has approximately 12,000 students, almost a third of them attending on a part-time basis. Most of these students are White, come from working-class backgrounds, and are often the first generation in their families to attend college. Like all college students, they vary in their levels of creativity, motivation, and intelligence. My experience in this overwhelmingly White-populated region during this time has been an education unto itself.

Truth be told, being perceived as a minority by the dominant majority population has never seemed unusual to me. I was armed with confidence during my early upbringing, always encouraged by my parents and relatives to venture (with reasonable caution, of course) into uncharted waters. I was always told that education encompasses a broad spectrum of learning experiences, and that engaging the diverse cultures of others was a part of these experiences. I was eager to encounter and learn from whatever newfound situations would present themselves. Nevertheless, I harbored some of the fears that most new professors probably face upon beginning their academic careers.

I quickly became aware that relationships with faculty and students take on their own dimensions. African American faculty like myself, and this is probably true also for faculty of other minority groups who are fortunate enough to land positions in academia, are often confronted with students who have no apprehensions in announcing that they have never associated with, lived near, nor been taught by a person of color. Some students flatly refuse to begin such a social expedition, and withdraw from the course. Most others, though, do make the necessary effort and manage to learn from, as well as occasionally appreciate, the education that is often gained from the rational examination and exchange of ideas among peoples of diverse cultures.

During my first year of teaching, there were some conflicts that reared their troublesome heads; however, they were quickly outnumbered by the positive experiences. The negative situations tended to derive from insensitive comments, such as those of some students who used the term "Negro" rather than "African American" or "Black" when referring to the group. A few (generally older) students still employed the word "colored," a favored "polite" form of reference to African Americans used by past generations of Whites. One student even went so far as to say "your kind" when referring to African Americans. During one class period, another student voiced his assumption that I obviously was a beneficiary of affirmative action, and that this was the only reason that I was teaching him and his peers. "Is it not true," he asked me, "that almost all Black professionals benefit from affirmative action of some sort?" Since the majority of students, regardless of how disturbing or retrograde their comments were to be, were honest in expressing their prior assumptions, I responded to them in as dispassionate a manner as possible. Such situations reminded me of the many dilemmas that a number of minority groups have historically endured in academia. Given what I already knew as the diminutive level of knowledge that many Whites, professors as well as students, have about African Americans and other minorities, I was not totally unprepared for the naive questions and comments I encountered.

During my first semester, some students commented on my teaching evaluations that I "talked too much" about African American history. Incredibly, some of these remarks were made in evaluations of my class in African American history! On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of students stated that they were very pleased to be introduced to individuals such as Ida B. Wells, A. Philip Randolph, Anna Julia Cooper, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois and others, and that they had been largely ignorant of the experiences and accomplishments of these Americans because they were never introduced to them in previous history courses, neither in high school nor college. Similar sentiments were echoed by many students who took my women's history courses. Despite the few criticisms mentioned above, 95 percent of the student comments have been positive.

Within many history departments—and mine is no exception—there is the debate on what is considered the "real" history, and how one should teach it. As was the case with English departments in the early 1990s with regard to the literary canon, history departments have had to confront the question of what is essential and what is less important in teaching our discipline to college students. Frequently, those of us minority historians whose scholarship tends to focus on cultural subjects such as race, feminism, and popular culture are challenged by our cohorts who feel that wars, agriculture, statesmen, politics, economics, and so on are the real historical issues worthy of study. Despite the stratification that was prevalent only a few years ago, I now believe that we have achieved somewhat of an equilibrium, or at least a reluctant acceptance that history can be more inclusive without ignoring the significance of the "traditional" issues of the older canon.

Being a history professor of African American heritage (or a Black professor in any academic field, for that matter) places a person in rare company and a somewhat strange situation. Statistically speaking, Black academics are an endangered species. Paradoxically, African American intellectuals are experiencing a popularity not seen since the Harlem Renaissance. Despite such ambiguities, I am honored to be a member of a profession that can claim such distinguished Black scholars as Carter G. Woodson, Rayford Logan, John Hope Franklin, and, more recently, Darlene Clark Hine, David Levering Lewis, Thomas Holt, Robin Kelley, and that formidable historian of the South and the Black experience, Nell Irvin Painter, to name but a few.4

Those of us who are in our inaugural stage as historians have entered the profession at a very exciting time. The discipline has grown considerably in its breadth of scholarship since the mid-1970s, and a number of departments have embraced, even if somewhat reluctantly, the sort of scholarly work that would have been marginalized, dismissed, or prohibited from academic study in the recent past. Indeed, subjects and topics that were once demeaned, ridiculed, or ignored are now acknowledged, respected, and, in a few cases, are being firmly etched into the curriculum of a number of history departments. This is particularly gratifying for those of us whose scholarship focuses on race, gender, or cultural history, particularly since there has been opposition from certain conservative quarters.5 Despite that criticism, those who are committed to the increasing pluralization of the history profession have been fairly successful in accomplishing their goals. The history profession is at the beginning of a new millennium where topics and ethnic groups that were once ignored are finally earning their proper acknowledgment from the profession. Hopefully, this will be a permanent trend as we enter the 21st century.

—Elwood Watson is assistant professor of American history at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee. He has written several articles that examine various aspects of the Black experience in America. His PhD thesis (University of Maine, 1999) was entitled "Black Women Law Professors in the Legal Academy and the Politics of Higher Education since Brown."


1. In 1997, 5,387 doctoral degrees were conferred in the arts and humanities, including history. Of that number, 3.4 percent went to those identified as "Black." The Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac Issue (August 27, 1999), 29.

2. "Black Historians at High-Ranking Universities," The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (autumn 1999): 17.

3. Ibid.

4. Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (Washington D.C.: Associated Publishers Inc., 1933); Carter G. Woodson is considered by many scholars as one of the founders of African American history. Rayford Logan, What the Negro Wants (Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 1944); Logan, who earned his PhD from Harvard, was a pioneering historian of the Black experience, and his work was received positively by both Blacks and Whites. He later taught at Howard University, and chaired the history department there for a number of years. John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947); Franklin's book is still considered by many historians as the most definitive work written on the African American experience, and its author has been referred to as the "historian of the century." Darlene Clark Hine, When the Truth Is Told: A History of Black Women's Culture and Community in Indiana, 1875–1950 (Indianapolis: National Council of Negro Women, 1981); Hine is considered one of the foremost experts on the history of Black women in America. David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. DuBois: A Biography of a Race, 1868–1919 (New York: Henry Holt, 1993); Lewis is a Rutgers University Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. Thomas Holt, Black Over White: Negro Political Leaders in South Carolina During Reconstruction (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1977). Holt is a former president of the AHA, and editor of numerous books. Robin D. Kelley, Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: The Free Press, 1994); Kelley is a significant young Black historian at New York University. Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996); Painter is a Princeton University historian, and the author of several other critically acclaimed works as well.

5. For a sampling of the criticism of higher education by conservative journalists, academics, and policy analysts, please see Dinesh D'Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: Free Press, 1991); Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (New York: Harper & Row, 1990); Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987); and Thomas Sowell, Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas (New York: Free Press, 1992).