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Searching for Myself: Black History Majors at UD

By Maleah Wells ’22

Over the past month, I have been doing research in the University Archives as an OhioLINK Library Leaders intern. I was given an assignment where I would have free rein to research and report on pretty much any topic I find interesting. My mentor/history professor suggested I do research on black women who have studied history here at the University of Dayton. I found this to be an amazing topic because I often wondered where women like me were. At one point, I was the only black history major in my 2022 class, but now there are two of us, and we are both women.

Why so few?

The field of history has very few African Americans and even fewer African American women. Doing research on past African American students studying history at the University might give me some clues as to why there are so few of us. It is also important to note that during the time period I’ve been studying — the 1970s and ’80s — institutions of higher education across the country were going through a series of changes. The black studies movement had become large scale, and black college students were calling for their universities for curricula that included black perspectives. So, after reviewing a series of UD yearbooks and commencement programs from the ’60s and finding nothing, I decided to narrow my research period to 1975 to 1985.

I also knew that the ’70s and ’80s were very important times for black studies. In 1969, the UD student organization Black Action Through Unity (BATU) proposed the establishment of a Black Studies Institute at the University of Dayton. The University accepted the proposal and soon offered black studies courses in African and African American history, philosophy, religion and literature. This became a victory for black students on campus — but a long and grueling victory.

Yearbooks, Commencement Programs yield few answers

When going through the yearbooks and commencement programs, I discovered what could have been UD’s first black history graduate — Monte Brigham from Springfield, Ohio. I found him in the 1976 yearbook, which had his picture, major and hometown listed. In the 1978 yearbook, I found possibly UD’s first African American woman history major, Joeanna Hill, from Dayton, Ohio. It was a strong possibility, however, that there were earlier black history majors who were not accounted for in the yearbooks or commencement programs. When my supervisor gave me the name of a woman named Margaret Peters, my research and findings shifted a bit. My supervisor believed that Peters could possibly be the first. She had multiple degrees — one in English, the other in history.

Alumni office provides data

From the alumni records office, I was able to get a small roster of past African American students who studied history at UD. With this roster, I found that Monte Brigham was not the first African American to receive an undergraduate degree in history at UD. It was another man by the name of Milton R. Hollar-Gregory, who graduated in 1971. I also found that Margaret Peters was the first African American woman to receive a graduate degree in history at the University in 1972, but she hadn’t earned an undergraduate degree in history. The first woman to do that was Judith A. Morton-Blackmon in 1973.

Programs advance; enrollment retreats

What is interesting about this time period and the emergence of these black scholars is a drastic decrease in black students at the University. In In Volume 1, Issue 1 of Uhuru (1977), a University-affiliated newspaper published by BATU, students express their frustrations with the lack of support for black students and diverse curriculum on campus. Derrick W. Coker writes, “Why so few Blacks here? From 1966-70, at least 500 blacks attended this university. Approximately 258 blacks entered UD in 1968. Yet, the coming seventies brought a drastic cut in black recruitment. Only 105 new brothers and sisters entered in 1969, and only 65-75 during each of the past two academic years. Noteably — of 2,000 freshmen in 1977, only about 65 are black” (page 2).

Even though the University had agreed to the black studies program, the students contended that the University hadn’t placed any effort in attracting black students and constructing a more inclusive curriculum.

Puzzling patterns

Throughout my research, I was only able to find five African American history majors from 1976 to 1986. This surprised me because I had figured with the black studies movement going on at the University, more students would have been interested in obtaining degrees in history.

This is where it began to get interesting. I wanted to know why there were so few of us. In Volume 1, Issue 3 of Uhuru (1977), Coker discusses the ongoing struggle of black studies and black students taking black courses: “Black students have asked why they should bother to register to take Black Studies courses, and Black faculty members have been pondering the causes of the wane in student enrollment in Black Studies,” he writes (page 6), saying white faculty members and advisers were not advising or encouraging black students to take these courses — that they would tell black students these courses didn’t fit their major or that some other course would make them more well-rounded students.

This got me thinking: Were black students being discouraged from taking courses in historical and philosophical studies? Most black students who attended the University majored in engineering, psychology or education. When the University recruited black students, was it only promoting certain majors? Because I only found five black students majoring in history between 1975 and 1985, I decided to just continue looking through commencement programs and yearbooks all the way to 2019. Just looking through yearbooks and commencement programs, I found 15-16 African American students who majored in history or art history. The majority of these students were men — only six were women (not including myself).

For context, that averages out to one or two black graduates of history every few years. I found a huge gap from 2000 to 2009, which I thought may have had something to do with the socioeconomic climate at the time.

Research result: More questions

With the data from alumni records, I was able to uncover that throughout UD history, only 35 African Americans have graduated with undergraduate degrees in history.

My conclusion: This project in the University Archives has raised as many questions as it answered. Documents and records can turn up of a lot of quantitative information such as who and when and how many ... but not always why. It's part of the appeal of majoring in history — and why I hope more people will discover it.

About Maleah Wells

I am a sophomore history major at UD and am in my first year of an OhioLINK Library Leaders Internship. I am also the vice president of Black Action Through Unity (BATU). Throughout my research, I have learned the importance of representation within the humanities for future generations. I promise that when it is finally my turn to get my picture taken for the yearbook, I will absolutely be present.


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