May 30, 2023
20 years after the establishment of the African American studies major at VCU, a look back at the program’s history and impact
Since its origins more than five decades ago, the program has developed into a ‘hub for Black intellectual thought.’
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When Eric Williams, Ph.D., started at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1984, he began taking African American studies courses. At the time, the courses were housed within the African American Studies Program, but students couldn’t major in the subject. Williams had to delay his education but returned to VCU in the early 1990s to finish his degree, earning a bachelor’s in general studies in 1995. The bachelor’s in African American studies was still nearly a decade away from existence, but Williams played a role in creating the major, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this spring.
“My curriculum [for my general studies degree] was used as the base for the major,” said Williams, who is now vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in North Chicago, Illinois.
A history as old as VCU
The initial idea for the Department of African American Studies originated in 1967 when an interracial group of approximately 20 students at the Richmond Professional Institute, which merged with the Medical College of Virginia in 1968 to become VCU, held a series of meetings to address race relations and to develop an African American studies program.
Those students formed the African American studies committee, which helped create two for-credit courses in African American studies at VCU in 1969. In 1972, the committee proposed and successfully instituted an African American studies program. Five years later, VCU established a minor in African American studies.
Williams often thinks back to his days at VCU and all the causes he and other students were fighting for at the time.
“There was no central office at VCU for students of color to get the support they needed. We started the fight for the Minority Student Affairs office in the ’80s — the office was created in the early 1990s — and we looked out for faculty members we thought deserved tenure,” he said. “We talked about questions like, ‘How do you change a sociological system that was not made for Black people and make sure we are getting the rights we deserve?’”
He was a student when Ann Creighton-Zollar, Ph.D., was appointed as interim director of the program in 1993 — she became director of the program two years later.
“The 1990s were exciting for African American studies at VCU,” she said. “Students were really into the program.”
Creighton-Zollar also was elected chair of the Task Force for the Enhancement of African American Studies, which worked to present a proposal for an African American studies major to VCU’s Board of Visitors, administrators and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). The state council rejected the proposal in 1997, sparking editorials at the Richmond Times-Dispatch debating the pros and cons, as well as a public protest on campus at Shafer Court.
It wasn’t until 2003 that SCHEV and VCU’s Board of Visitors agreed to offer the first standalone major in African American studies, making VCU the second school in Virginia to do so.
“It was a big deal for the state to grant VCU permission to offer a bachelor’s degree in African American studies,” said Creighton-Zollar.
Shawn Utsey, Ph.D., professor of psychology, who chaired the Department of African American Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences from 2007 to 2013 and 2018 to 2021, has seen tremendous growth in the program.
“At first, we had only one faculty member and today the department has five full-time faculty members,” he said. “The department has made a lot of important contributions to the university.”
The classes Williams took in the program were instrumental to the work he does now, he said.
“I wanted to work in a capacity to help students who are underrepresented in higher education. I wanted to put those pieces in place so those students and also faculty and staff know they are coming to a place where they feel empowered, safe and where they will thrive,” he said. “Those are the things I learned from my African American studies classes, the sociological aspects of the program. I’m still applying those today.”
Jamal Batts, Ph.D., Stanford University IDEAL Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Art and Art History and one of the first VCU students to graduate with a bachelor’s in African American studies, came to VCU to major in communications because he wanted to be a film director.
But, when he walked into his first African American studies class, an introductory course taught by Norrece T. Jones Jr., Ph.D., he found the drive and passion within himself to think broadly about how to better the lives of Black people.
“I arrived late, and bell hooks’ documentary ‘Cultural Criticism and Transformation’ was playing. The way that she and later Dr. Jones would break down how patriarchy was a force of harm in Black communities inspires the work I do,” Batts said. “The classrooms of Dr. Melanie Njeri Jackson and Dr. Ann Creighton-Zollar continued the work of emphasizing the importance of Black feminism to Black freedom. Dr. Jackson’s commitment to Black liberation and struggle, as she critiqued the misogyny within Black Cultural Nationalism, remains a touchstone for me.”
Batts was introduced to the work of Black gay filmmaker Marlon Riggs in Jones’ Black film course.
“I was touched by that work because it was the first time my own particular experience was considered to have value in a classroom. I study and write about Black queer contemporary art now, and that moment started my journey,” he said, adding the first time he went out of the country was on a study abroad trip to Barbados with Professor Bernard Moitt. “He taught me that Black studies is a global diasporic project. These are lessons that guide me in life, in my writing, and in the classroom.”
Space for brave conversations
When Batts, who graduated in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and African American studies, came to VCU there were conversations about Black masculinity, Black sexuality, Black popular culture and debates regarding the potential for the legalization of gay marriage.
“What I learned in those classrooms and the conversations we had were extremely influential to the work I do now thinking about how Blackness, gender and sexuality are represented in Black contemporary art and culture,” Batts said. “These were topics that I knew I could discuss and have brave, sometimes difficult conversations about because I saw professors at VCU do that every day in our classrooms.”
Like Williams and Batts, Jennifer Black was inspired by the African American Studies Program. She was on campus in 2006 when six Black teens in Jena, Louisiana, known as the Jena Six, were accused of beating up a white student.
“We were formulating conversations on the trial,” said Black, licensed clinical social worker and lead clinician at Cohen Military Family Clinic in Virginia Beach, who graduated from VCU in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in women’s studies and African American studies. She earned her master’s degree in social work in 2010. “Locally, PETA had a large campaign juxtaposing pictures of enslaved people and violence against Blacks and comparing it to animals. We peacefully confronted them.”
She learned a great deal in her African American studies classes, she said.
“What stuck with me the most from our instruction was learning the history of the way in which we were conditioned to assimilate,” she said.
Studying Black and white infant mortality rates and patterns in Black women’s health with Creighton-Zollar “informed my focus when I started working in social work and working in traditionally marginalized communities,” she said.
The program influenced the interventions she uses now, she said.
“The insights I got as far as the needs of the Black and brown community were grounded in what I learned from the African American studies program,” she said.
VCU students and faculty began the push to establish African American studies as a program more than 55 years ago and have been moving the discipline forward ever since.
“The Department of African American Studies has and continues to be a significant hub for Black intellectual thought in the academy, critical thinking and creating a sense of belonging for students and educational enrichment for the local Richmond community and beyond,” said Mignonne C. Guy, Ph.D., chair of the Department of African American Studies.
Over the past few years, the department has created space dedicated to student connection in Gabriel’s House and developed academic concentrations for students in education, public administration, public health and urban studies. Guy said the department’s faculty, along with students and the community, have also been catalysts for the development of the university's new requirement for students to engage in a general education course on racial literacy.
“Beginning [this fall], all VCU undergraduate students will take a three-credit course that meets the racial literacy requirement as a part of the foundations of VCU’s general education curriculum. The structure of this requirement and the model to achieve it is the first in the nation,” Guy said. “As chair of the Department of African American Studies, I could not be more proud of my colleagues and grateful to serve our students in a manner that not only meets their educational needs but empowers them to make real social change.”
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