African American Studies at Emory

A Model for Change

By Delores Aldridge
Grace Towns Hamilton Professor of Sociology
and African American Studies


The development of the black studies program at Emory University provides a revealing example of the crucial role of the discipline as a resource for study of the black experience. The program has also been a significant vehicle for students, faculty, and staff to advocate for peoples whose cultural and historical experiences have been ignored and maligned. Black studies at Emory served as a forerunner to other new interdisciplinary programs and paved the way for greater University commitment to addressing the culturally specific needs and concerns of students of varied racial, ethnic, and gender minorities. In meeting the challenges of these endeavors, the program has bridged the distance between peoples by reminding them of their commonalities and the strengths that lie in understanding and respecting human difference.

Seeking Understanding of the "Black Experience"

Although many universities outside the South had admitted and graduated black students since the turn of the twentieth century or earlier, most historically white southern universities remained segregated into the 1960s. Emory University did not admit its first black student until the fall of 1962. Significantly, the continuing institutional and societal racism that limited the numbers of blacks on predominantly white college campuses, coupled with a relative lack of commitment to providing support for black students, provided the impetus for a revolution within institutions of higher learning -- one that called for the development of black studies programs. By the end of the 1960s, black students at Emory, whose consciousness had been sharpened by the protest ideology of the civil rights movement, were demanding a relevant education that included a systematic study of what was termed the black experience.

Confrontations between Emory faculty, students, and administration occurred throughout 1968 and 1969. On May 25, 1969, the Black Student Alliance (BSA) presented a list of demands to University President Sanford Atwood, stating:

Emory, out of ignorance, has not understood fully the implications of admitting black students. Emory admitted black students, and concomitant with this admission were certain responsibilities which Emory should have fulfilled in behalf of these students. These responsibilities are in the four main areas of campus life: social, academic, psychological, and financial.

Pioneering a New Area of Study

Arriving at Emory in 1971, I became the founding director of black studies, which later became African American and African Studies (AAAS). Despite the novelty of the situation, the Black Studies Program at Emory quickly became the first degree-granting program of its kind at a major private institution in the South. In September 1971, I introduced an outline of the general philosophy of the new program, emphasizing five features: course content related to the black experience should be part of the curriculum; courses in black studies were appropriate in a number of disciplines, and content should be intensified in existing courses; offerings in black studies overlap and should be related to urban blacks through practicums; content of black studies courses should prepare students for life in a racially integrated society; and black faculty members should teach black courses wherever feasible, but the preparation of the faculty member and not skin color should be most relevant.

At the end of the 1978-79 school year, I outlined new, modest goals for the next five years, and some of these goals soon became realities. To increase enrollment, the first goal was approval of at least three black studies courses as options for fulfilling College distribution requirements. Other objectives included having at least five students declare black studies as part of their joint major, hiring more faculty and staff, developing greater outreach activities on the campus and in the black community, developing a stronger national image, adding a full-time assistant to the director, maintaining independent status in the College, and acquiring a budget that would allow for a high-quality program.

Connecting with the Community

The activities of AAAS within the Atlanta black community and at Emory increased substantially during 1980-81: planning sundry cultural events, advising local universities on their own AAAS programs and departments, assisting DeKalb County in planning its Black History Month activities, and planning for the Conference on the Life and History of Black Georgians.

The AAAS program also made substantial contributions to both the academic and social life of the University. In an effort to respond to recent tensions, the program cosponsored a workshop on "Unlearning Racism." The international focus of the program led to a visit by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who delivered the Commencement address and received an honorary degree in May 1988.

Emory's program was in the vanguard of the black / Africana studies movement in higher education in the late sixties and garnered national and international respect as the first degree-granting program in the South. The founding director of the program was also the first African American faculty member at Emory College. Since that time, the program has grown in both African American and non-African American faculty and has acquired departmental status. The highly qualified and respected faculty members excel in teaching and scholarship both in the departments where members are jointly appointed and in various other University programs. Moreover, members of our faculty are deeply committed to community outreach, as reflected in the creation of the first internship program Emory offered in Atlanta, in 1972, a program that over the decades has served as a model for other departments, programs, and centers.