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The Difference a Department Makes: Woodson Institute Determines Its Destiny

Oct 10, 2017 |

The creeping re-segregation of public schools. Consequences of recent changes to voting rights laws. The widening gap between the wealthy and the poor. The effects of incarceration on families. Charlottesville’s history of race relations.

These are just a few examples of topics to which the academic discipline of African-American studies brings valuable, necessary perspectives, according to University of Virginia English professor Deborah McDowell, director of UVA’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies.

This year the institute has become a full-fledged department in the College of Arts & Sciences.

“It is now widely conceded that interdisciplinary research is essential to understanding a range of intellectual and social issues,” McDowell said, but this approach has been characteristic of African-American studies for decades.

“Since its inception [in 1981], the institute has promoted interdisciplinary and collaborative research and interpretation of the African and African-American experience,” she said.

Still called the Woodson Institute – at least for now – it administers undergraduate major and minor degrees in African-American and African studies, and includes a Distinguished Majors Program for fourth-year students who wish to conduct intensive research culminating in a thesis. The program’s minor in African studies was initiated in 2007.

What difference does departmental status make? It will give the program more autonomy to determine its destiny, McDowell said. Its faculty members will be able to set their own priorities and curricula. They’ve expanded their space in Minor Hall, but at this point, have only begun to think about changing the name that has lent the unit its distinction for 36 years. 

“Few could dispute that the fundamental missions of a university – teaching and scholarship – are traditionally carried out by departments,” she said. “While faculty members in interdisciplinary programs certainly assume these responsibilities as well, the programs in which they ply their trades are often perceived as fundamentally different and/or marginal to the essential work of the University, lacking the institutional stature, value and recognition needed to function with independence and authority.

“We’ve arrived at departmental status through the pressure students have brought to bear for decades, but most recently, due to the vision of the dean,” she said, referring to Arts & Sciences Dean Ian Baucom, whose academic background includes African studies.

“The Carter G. Woodson Institute has long distinguished itself for its signature contributions to the research and teaching of African and African-American studies in this country,” Baucom said. “Its promotion as this University’s newest academic department, built on the ambitions and efforts of Deborah McDowell, her faculty colleagues and the institute directors who preceded her, marks a significant milestone for the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences."

“The University of Virginia is fundamentally enlivened and has been transformed by the scholars and students inspired by the Woodson Institute’s educational mission. Studying and researching African and African-American studies in deeper ways is an extremely important ambition for our faculty and students – for today and for future generations,” he said.

Until it became a department, the Woodson Institute was required to partner with other departments in hiring faculty, and those departments had veto power, making the process  structurally unequal, McDowell said. Now a candidate for a position in the Woodson Institute won’t have to go through two separate processes with the institute and a department to be hired. The right to make unilateral tenure appointments and other hires is a critical feature of academic departments.

That doesn’t mean there will no longer be any joint appointments, just that it will be one among other means of making faculty appointments. 

“Not least among the benefits of departmentalization,” she said, “is the ability of African-American and African studies to shape and establish a curriculum with greater internal coherence and integrity, a curriculum not largely dependent on course offerings in other departments.

“Finally, becoming a department will benefit the students who major in African-American and African studies, students who have had to adapt to an ever-changing schedule of courses taught by faculty members, the majority of whom have no obligations to, and often limited involvement with, the program.”

“Even with this change,” McDowell noted, “We couldn’t have survived this far without other departments’ support and the participation of faculty affiliates.”

Building on a 25-Year History

The Woodson Institute’s founding director, historian Armstead L. Robinson, began his tenure in 1981 with a twofold mandate: to enhance the research and teaching of African-American studies in the schools and departments of the University and to establish an African-American studies research center that would make important contributions to scholarship and learning at this major Southern university.

When McDowell took over the directorship in 2008, the institute was awarding only two pre-doctoral fellowships and one post-doctoral fellowship annually, and its core faculty had dwindled to three faculty members whose part-time appointments were the equivalent of 1.25 full-time members. Resources had declined in the era of budget tightening and hadn’t been restored.

Despite those difficulties, historian Reginald Butler, hired as director in 1997 after Robinson’s untimely death in 1995, secured grants that launched a series of important local history initiatives, McDowell said. With assistant director Scot French, Butler created the 2005 digital project, “Race and Place: An African-American Community in the Jim Crow South,” an archive about the racial segregation laws that came to be known as ‘Jim Crow’ laws from the late 1880s until the mid-20th century. Butler also hosted the Chesapeake Seminar Series, which brought professors to UVA from historically black colleges and universities. Butler retired in 2010.

French, who held a Woodson pre-doctoral fellowship from 1994 to ’96 and is now an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida, also produced important digital research, including the Vinegar Hill Project, which documents the destruction of the African-American residential-business district in the 1960s in the name of “urban renewal.”

“His work on Vinegar Hill has been essential to all who would understand the razing of that community and the after-effects of that decimation,” McDowell said.

Under McDowell’s leadership, the institute has rebounded and grown into a thriving, internationally known hub for nurturing African-American studies scholarship.

Of its 12 faculty members, assistant professor Anne Rotich teaches Swahili, the most widely spoken language in Africa, which students can take to fulfill the foreign language requirement. Three-quarters of Woodson faculty have joint appointments with American studies, English, history, religious studies and sociology, and faculty affiliates from other departments and schools (whose courses can be counted toward the African-American studies major) include Law School Dean Risa Goluboff and more than 20 others.

Expanding the Academic Pipeline

The two-year residential Woodson Fellowship program, which hosts eight pre-doctoral and three post-doctoral scholars each year, has supported the research of more than 200 fellows over the decades. The program aims to encourage African-American and African scholarship and expand the academic pipeline of minority professors by helping pre- and post-doctoral fellows complete scholarly work and prepare for the academic job market. Most, but not all, Woodson Fellows are from minority backgrounds, and have gone on to jobs at top universities, including UVA.

“From the start, the Woodson Institute was conceived as holding the potential of ‘seeding’ the professoriate – not just at UVA, but beyond,” McDowell said.

For example, former pre-doctoral fellow Tera Hunter – now a professor of history and African-American studies at Princeton University – came to the Woodson Institute from Yale University in 1987 and worked on a groundbreaking dissertation which later became her first book, “To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War.” It received several prizes, including the H.L. Mitchell Award from the Southern Historical Association, the Letitia Brown Memorial Book Prize from the Association of Black Women’s Historians and the Book of the Year Award from the International Labor History Association.

Hunter will return to the Grounds Dec. 1 for a symposium organized by assistant professor history Justene Hill Edwards, a former doctoral student of Hunter’s, and co-sponsored by the Woodson Institute, on “Black Feminist Freedom,” that will honor her scholarship. Her most recent book, furthering research on the lives of black women, is “Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century.”

Delving Into History, Local and Beyond

Another recent Woodson research project, supported by UVA’s Strategic Investment Fund, took place this summer, conceived well before the white supremacist demonstrators came to town. The Citizen Justice Initiative enlisted student interns from Charlottesville-area high schools and UVA, who worked with McDowell and the project’s managing editor, James Perla, to create the website, “The Illusion of Progress: Charlottesville’s Roots in White Supremacy.”

The multimedia resource “explores the history surrounding Charlottesville’s Confederate statues to demonstrate how narratives of progress and entrenched fictions of racial difference enable material injustices to take root, suppressing black people’s claims to personhood, citizenship and basic freedoms,” it says in the introduction. It brings together the past research in the “Race and Place” archive, French’s Vinegar Hill Project and other sources from the Charlottesville and University community.

In addition, the institute has long held commitments to public outreach, organizing symposia and forums that tackle current events and raise awareness about African-American history and cultural heritage, while addressing inequities and injustices. Past events in its “Currents in Conversation” series have covered topics such as “Violence, Citizenship and Social Justice”  “Race, Wealth, and College Admissions,” “Race and Predatory Lending,” as well discrimination against  black youth in the public school system, and the history and viability of reparations. Last year, the institute organized a symposium in memory of the lifelong work of civil rights icon Julian Bond, a former UVA history professor.

Three upcoming events illustrate some of the relevant research the Woodson Institute typically presents, often in collaboration with other departments, drawing on experts on Grounds and from other institutions speaking on contemporary life and issues.

Duke University professor Nancy MacLean’s new book, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” challenges the work of James M. Buchanan, a libertarian economist and Nobel laureate who taught at UVA (from 1956 to 1968), several other universities and eventually George Mason University. MacLean, whose visit is co-sponsored by the Corcoran Department of History and the College of Arts & Sciences’ Power, Violence and Inequality Collective, will visit UVA to discuss her work on Oct. 12.

During the mid-20th century, more than 6 million African-Americans moved from the South to other parts of the country, especially urban centers like New York City and Chicago, in what is called “the Great Migration.” In recent times, many African-Americans have headed back to the South. In November, UVA sociologist Sabrina Pendergrass will talk with internationally known Professor of History and Social Justice Joe William Trotter Jr., director and founder of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for African American Urban Studies and the Economy, about the reversal of black migration on Nov. 8. Trotter will then address the state of the black working class in a talk on Nov. 9.

Carter G. Woodson, Past and Future

The institute, McDowell said, will continue to follow in the footsteps of its namesake, Carter G. Woodson, known as “the father of African-American history.” Woodson was born in 1875 in Buckingham County to parents who were formerly enslaved. In 1912, he became the second African-American to receive a Harvard Ph.D. in history, his predecessor being the eminent black scholar W.E.B. DuBois.

Woodson worked tirelessly for professional recognition of the study of African-American history during a period when most historians held the opinion that African-Americans were a people without history. He published more than a dozen books, including the influential 1933 book, “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” which focused on Western indoctrination and African-American self-empowerment, and is still regularly taught in colleges and universities.

The academic association and accompanying journal he founded in 1915 and 1916, respectively, continue to this day as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and the Journal of African-American History. He established a publishing company, taught in several schools and worked as a college dean at West Virginia Collegiate Institute and Howard University.

Woodson lobbied to establish Negro History Week (now Black History Month), which began in February 1926, as an annual celebration of African-American achievement. Woodson chose February to honor the birth months of abolitionist and ex-slave Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.

Ever expanding its reach of initiatives, the Woodson Institute will launch its first-ever formal study abroad program this January term with a course in Ghana, to be team-taught by McDowell and assistant professor Kwame Otu, who is originally from that country.