March 19, 2007
59, Number 23
March 19, 2007
by kim urquhart
When Delores P. Aldridge was a college student at what is now Clark Atlanta University, her participation in civil rights marches landed her several times in jail. “I was in jail when Martin Luther King Jr. visited, telling us to ‘hold on,’” she recalls. That semester, the valedictorian and straight-A student received her first “B.”
“I was very young then,” says the Grace Towns Hamilton Professor of Sociology and African American Studies, “but I felt that I could not let this moment pass and not be a part of helping to transform and make things better.”
Addressing and confronting issues of race, gender, social justice and human rights became her life’s work, and an area where the self-described “path breaker” achieved many firsts.
As Emory’s first African American female faculty member, Aldridge pioneered the first degree-granting Black Studies program in the South, and became the first chaired professor named in honor of a living African American woman at a major university. Aldridge was also the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in sociology at Purdue University and the first sociologist to serve as a policy analyst within the U.S. Forest Service. But Aldridge will be the first to credit her success to the support of strong advocates.
“I feel blessed and fortunate that I’ve had such an exceptional grounding in my early development and I had so much support,” she says. “As someone who has been given so much, I can only give back.”
Aldridge is a dedicated teacher — she has never missed a class in 36 years at Emory — who makes the classroom come alive. “I’m not an armchair theorizer. I believe in integrating the classroom with the outside world,” says Aldridge, who has received six teaching and service excellence awards from Emory. She integrates real-life examples from her extensive work in higher education, government and the private sector.
“To be involved beyond the classroom, beyond the academy, is as natural to me as breathing is to living,” she says. “You can’t help but bring that back to the classroom.”
Aldridge’s curriculum vitae is more than 40 pages thick; chronicled within are consultancies with more than 90 foreign government agencies, more than 160 publications authored or edited and pages of administrative positions and experiences in higher education. She has been honored with more than 100 awards, many of which fight for wall space in her Tarbutton Hall office, including a framed photo of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev congratulating Aldridge for the 1992 Thomas Jefferson Award, Emory’s premier award for an influential career of longevity.
She has chaired or served on numerous committees and boards, including Care International and the board of trustees of Clark Atlanta University. And her political appointment to three DeKalb County authorities puts her “in the heart of the social and political arena of DeKalb County,” she says.
Her leadership extends to national organizations, including an unprecedented two-term presidency of the National Council for Black Studies where she has helped advance the discipline. She ran Emory’s Department of African American Studies for 20 years as, she says, “the longest continuously sitting director of an African American studies program in the world.”
Aldridge left her post as executive director of an Indiana community center to lead Emory’s African American Studies program, which the University created in 1971 in response to student demand. “It was the first kind of an academic program to come within the academy that was not created or pushed by faculty, but rather was pushed by students,” she explains. “Many students had been in the civil rights movements. When they came back to historically white campuses they found that there was no reflection of them in the university curriculum, or in the faculty and staff for the most part.”
The task seemed daunting: she was the first black woman faculty member at a primarily white, male-dominated institution in one of the most conservative regions in the nation; and there were few black studies programs in the U.S. on which to model the program she was charged with building. Yet Aldridge met the challenge head-on. “I’d been so many places, done so many things, that coming to Emory was but another challenge for me, and one I rather enjoyed. I love challenges,” she adds. Under Aldridge, the program grew and shifted over the years to accommodate new intellectual energy.
The same energy that Aldridge applies to her scholarship, teaching and service to the University also extends to the community, the nation and the world. “A very broad range of background training and experience has allowed me to move in a lot of arenas,” she explains. “Contrary to being micro-
oriented, I’ve always been macro-oriented, concerned with the broad picture of understanding the human condition.”
In 1999, Aldridge and her husband — an electrical engineer who helped develop the first controls on MARTA trains — created the Kess Nsona Foundation to support scholarships, university technology improvement and community projects in Ghana. Funds have also been provided to build a clinic in Ghana in honor
of Aldridge’s youngest sister, Jacquelyn Delaine Aldridge, who was a victim of the
Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack. Aldridge has also established a scholarship at Clark Atlanta University in the name of her deceased mother, Mary Ellen Bennett Aldridge.
The mother of two has always been a self-starter, a trait fostered in her youth. “The sky was my limit,” Aldridge says. “I grew up in a very nurturing family and very nurturing community, one in which I was able to thrive,” she says of a close-knit community in Tampa, Florida. “And when you’re able to thrive early on, you continue.”
She spent summers with relatives in New York. “We lived in Striver’s Row in the heart of Harlem between 7th and 8th Avenue,” she recalls. As a high school and college student, Aldridge worked as a receptionist at the New York branch of the NAACP under the civil rights lawyer and activist Percy Sutton. Here she met the movers and the shakers of the movement — Malcolm X and his wife Betty Shabaaz, Martin Luther King Jr., Queen Mother Moore and others who made a lasting impact on the aspiring scholar activist.
Aldridge’s own work has had an impact on the field of sociology, for which she received the Charles S. Johnson Award from the Southern Sociological Society in 2006. “My writing has reached a lot of people,” she says.
Aldridge is popularly known for her 1994 work, “Focusing: Black Male-Female Relationships,” for which a third volume is forthcoming. An additional work is in press for 2007. “Africana Studies: Philosophical Perspectives and Theoretical Paradigms,” being published by Washington State University Press, is an extension of a monumental volume titled “Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies,” published in 2000.
Aldridge’s books provide a conceptual framework for understanding an issue in order to resolve it. “All my work must be two-pronged,” she explains. “I believe in a strong theoretical empirical base, but in keeping with my own way of viewing the world there needs to be some projections of policies of change.”
In what will be the first collection of personal and professional papers that document the work of a faculty member who founded a completely new program at Emory, Aldridge’s papers may soon join the impressive collection of Emory’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library. According to University Archivist Ginger Cain, Aldridge’s papers will “add invaluable documentation to the history of Emory,” and chronicle her decades-long distinguished career as the pioneer of Emory’s African American Studies program.
“People always talk about how long I’ve been here,” Aldridge says. “I have remained at Emory because Emory has been a base from which I have been able to do many, many different things both in and outside of the academy.” She pauses, smiles, and then adds: “It’s been a good life in Atlanta.”