The Evolution Of Black Studies Programs In The United States
Though other liberal arts majors date back to the late 1800s, an official Black Studies program was not established until the late 1960s.
Becoming a Black studies major and becoming immersed in aspects of your history is a relatively new concept. From learning the very beginnings of African civilization to the critical movements that have shaped our political sphere, our ability to gain this information has been a great opportunity. Though the origins of other liberal arts majors date as far back as the late 1800s, an official Black Studies program was not institutionalized until the late 1960s. This wasn’t made possible until after decades of protests. We had to fight to get our history to be taught in schools. And with that, we experienced significant loss while doing so.
Described by many names, African Studies, Black Studies, or Africology, it’s the study of Black people worldwide. Each of those subtopics hit specific geological standpoints. For instance, African Diaspora studies focus on Black people displaced throughout the Americas. Black studies center more on Black Americans or African studies, which dive deep into African Civilization pre-slavery. They all fall under humanities and social science, which is the study of not only a specific sector of people but also the culture that surrounds them. Despite the different umbrella terms, they all work to achieve the same goal: undo the centuries of misrepresentation, miseducation and overall ignorance that lead to a public misconstrued deception of our people. Doing so has brought many Black people to connect with their ancestral roots.
There were a lot of historical moments that led up to Black Studies becoming institutionalized in colleges and universities. Between 1945 and 1955, many moving pieces were happening in the government. There was a dire need for proper representation in our educational system. Brown vs. Board occurred in 1954; it struck down segregation in schools. The GI Bill paid for college tuition for many Black veterans too. Not to mention the desegregation of other legal, systemic and academic institutions.
These historical moments increased Black people attending school and eventually finding themselves in college. With more Black people in schools, it became natural to question why there wasn’t any authentic Black history being taught in schools. Even now, in 2023, a whitewashed curriculum. Our only history about Black people being taught is slavery — which doesn’t fully encompass all that it should; since there are now Black people in the schools, Black history should be taught. These revelations, matched with community organizing spawned from the Black Power movement, sparked civil unrest.
Howard University staged a sit-in and ultimately seized the administrative buildings for four days straight between March 19 to 23 in 1968. One of their demands was that the history of African American people would be added to the curriculum. Over 1,000 students gathered to fight for justice and the future of their education. Many student-led groups were forming in this particular decade to combat the racist system. They sought to educate the community when those in power failed to do so. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worked urgently to fight against the injustices. In 1968 they merged with The Black Panther Party. At that point, they continued to provide myriad community services. They even started the Intercommunal Youth Institute through mutual aid services, newsletter distribution and breakfast programs. It worked to provide Black students with the proper education they received in white-dominated institutions. People worked endlessly to ensure justice for Black people and a better future for our youth.
At the same time, we had the Cold War going on, the McCarthy Hearings, and the formation of Cointelpro. Eventually, this all led to the dismantling of these radically led groups. We lost many influential leaders; it became too dangerous to be known as a freedom fighter. With so many outside entities going against a “white nationalist” narrative, controlling what was taught throughout the states was necessary. At a cost, Black studies eventually were rolled out into colleges in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many Black figures questioned the genuine intentions of the sudden interest in institutionalizing Black Studies after many years of pushback. But it served as a win to the many lives lost and severed movements.
Merrit Community College in Oakland, CA, established the first organized Black Studies course in 1965-1966. San Fransico State University was approved for the first four-year program in 1967-1968. Since then, the Black Studies major has gone in many different directions, adding new categories to be taught, and still has to face criticism for not being perceived as a “valid enough” major to go into.
Our history has been through generations of obstruction, and even now, in current days, we’re seeing our life’s work being banned from different academic institutions. Our fight to honor those who have sacrificed to ensure we have these resources is to utilize them. You don’t have to be a Black Studies major to take a class; see how to take one to fulfill a humanities or fine arts requirement. Our history can no longer be erased if we take the proper steps to learn. Black Studies has an extensive history, and this barely scratched the surface. With new movements arising and our access to social media to connect globally, we’re getting ourselves ready to add more classes, have more discussions, and, most importantly, learn from one another — and our history.
Alycia Kamil is a freedom fighter and believer of the people. She is a Freshman at Wilbur Wright College. Follow her writings, interests and more here.