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“Of the Wings of Atalanta”: The Struggle for African American Studies at the University of Virginia, 1969–1995


Anything but peripheral to the institutional and political struggles of African American Studies in the post-Black Power era, the University of Virginia (UVA) occupies an important place in the field’s history. Combined with its role as a major funding source for graduate students and advanced scholars with research interests in the history, culture, and politics of the African diaspora, the University has been the site of passionate debates over the field’s transformative potential in both the academy and the larger world. It has also been an institution with a rather complicated relationship to the Black Studies project, due in no small part to internal divisions over the best way to advance the field’s pedagogical goals, research agenda, and political objectives. Consequently, UVA’s African American and African Studies program, particularly its “institute model” of scholarly advancement, provides an excellent case study for examining the regional breadth of the Black Studies movement and its broad impact on knowledge production within and beyond the academy.

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  1. Here, my deployment of the term “field” in reference to UVA’s African American Studies program reflects a conscious attempt on my part to use terminology representative of the dominant perspective—and by extension institutional arrangements—at the University of Virginia. This is not to say, however, that the University did not have scholars and students who viewed African American/Black Studies as a discipline. As was the case at many colleges and universities throughout the country, students, faculty, and administrators at UVA did not arrive at a general consensus on the question of whether African American Studies constituted a discipline or a field. On the one hand, scholars such as Armstead L. Robinson, along with key University administrators, viewed African American Studies as an interdisciplinary field of knowledge production that drew on the paradigms, methodological approaches, and theoretical frameworks of traditional disciplines (i.e., History, Sociology, Anthropology, and English). On the other hand, Vivian V. Gordon, a sociologist who served as the director of UVA’s Afro-American Studies program during the second half of the 1970s, embraced the position that Black Studies was indeed a discipline with its own methods of research and theoretical analyses. Hers was a perspective that increasingly drew the support of many black students during the late 1970s and the early 1980s.

  2. For example, critical questions must be raised about the Carter G. Woodson Institute’s pre-doctoral and post-doctoral fellowship program, the intellectual profile of its recipients, and the extent to which the scholarship of the Institute’s fellows represent the diverse modes of inquiry within the field of African American Studies.

  3. For a firsthand account of these developments see Gaston 2009.

  4. Taylor and Harris submitted the proposal on behalf of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Black Students for Freedom and Members of the Black Academic Community.

  5. Conspicuously absent from the UVA proposal is any discussion of how the future AAS program would serve the larger Charlottesville community, particularly African Americans. Such an omission is telling given the fact that most proposals demanding a Black Studies program devoted considerable attention to the field’s “practical dimension.” For example, in his important 1969 essay, “Black Studies: A Concept and A Plan,” James Turner, director of the Afro-American Studies Center at Cornell University, let it be known that his center would be deeply committed to responding to the needs and concerns of the African American community. “Contemporary black students,” he noted, “feel a keen sense of themselves as an extension of the Black community-a distinct few who seek to gain educational and scientific experiences in order to work within the Black community… Increasing, Black students are seeking to promulgate a conceptual and theoretical framework within which constructive change may be channeled into the black community. They seek to build; thus, a relevant education becomes a necessity.” A parallel perspective appears in Darwin Turner’s proposal for the Center for Afro-American Studies at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.” In that text, Turner wrote: “What is essential to the proponents of such a Black Studies program is that each item of the program be planned in reference to a goal of liberation and development of black people. In short, the student is not to be trained to be a ‘credit to his race’—to echo the old platitude of praise—but to be an asset to his people.” Though the University of Virginia’s “Proposal for an Afro-American Studies” recommended courses that would address issues of concern for African American communities, one never gets a sense that the program would have an intimate connection to local people (Turner; Turner 1969).

  6. For more detail on the student protests at Duke University consult the following sources: New York Times, “Protesters Disrupt Duke and C.C.N.Y,” February 14, 1969; Fergus 2009. Significantly, the campuses of UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro, and North Carolina A&T also witnessed a great deal of political unrest as youth activists organized around issues ranging from workers wages to the formation of Black Studies programs. See Fink 1995.

  7. Jet Magazine, “Virginia to Offer Black Studies Major,” August 13, 1970.

  8. According to James Cone and Gayraud Wilmore, Washington’s negative reply to the query of whether African American churches were Christian “made him the most talked about and controversial Black scholar of religion” during the late sixties. See Cone and Wilmore 1993. For a small sampling of Washington’s immense contributions to black religious thought, as well as the scholarly critiques of his work see Wilmore 1983; Coleman 2000; Evans 1992; Baldwin 1992.

  9. For more on Vivian Gordon’s intellectual work, see Gordon (1977, 1981, 1987). A pithy yet informative overview of Vivian Gordon’s contributions to both African American Studies and sociology can be found in Aldridge 2009.

  10. Cavalier Daily, October 13, 1975.

  11. Consult Cavalier Daily, November 11, 1980.

  12. It is important to note that the National Council for Black Studies regularly engaged in these debates. Vivian Gordon, the only UVA faculty member with strong ties to the NCBS, was often a participant in these debates.

  13. Cavalier Daily, February 24, 1981.


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Correspondence to Claudrena N. Harold.

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Harold, C.N. “Of the Wings of Atalanta”: The Struggle for African American Studies at the University of Virginia, 1969–1995. J Afr Am St 16, 41–69 (2012).

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