Afro-American Studies begins

Bryant Craft, The Formation of Afro-American Studies

Most people, no matter their race, tend to think that schools across the country have always had an Afro-American studies department. And at UMass, I feel that students assume that the W.E.B Du Bois Department of African American Studies and the New Africa House have been here since the creation of the university in 1863. I feel that students think the establishment of this department came as simple as if someone said “let there be black studies,” and there was (2). Sadly, most have no idea of the history behind the creation of the Afro-American studies department and the New Africa House. Most don’t know the struggle our predecessors fought; and that our professors and alums risked their careers to change UMass into the university it is today.

The Afro-American studies department was created in 1970, one hundred and seven years after UMass first opened its doors. Prior to its creation, the University only had 5 black professors; Randolph W. “Bill” Bromery, Lawrence A. Johnston, William Julius Wilson, Edwin Driver, and William Darity(4). The driving force for the development of the Afro-American studies department was W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He is the founder of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and editor of “Crisis” magazine. Du Bois served as an inspiration to the black faculty members:

“He personally embarked on scholarly studies of our people, believing that when the truth of our lives was known that America and its educational institutions would accept and propagate the truth. Many of us who came to the University of Massachusetts in the 1960’s knew and respected the work of W.E.B. Du Bois. After all, he spoke to us eloquently of our potential as black Americans when other voices were quiet.” (2)

In 1960 African American students were a rarity on campus. In fact, UMass had more students from Asia and Africa than black students from Massachusetts in 1968. They also had fewer black students on campus than the universities of Mississippi or Alabama, which were both legally segregated schools at the time (4).

The department was created in the midst of one of the most hostile times in American history. There was much opposition to the creation of black studies. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court made segregated schools illegal. During this time, whites tried to find any way to prevent the de-segregation of their colleges and universities(2). It seemed as if white people feared the education of black people. They felt that by creating black studies, black people would cause harm to white folks and become racist. According to Julius Lester, author of the book Growing Down, white academia saw  black studies as “a political pacifier, a badge of liberalism that universities wear to prove they are not racist”(2).

After the desegregation of schools , the predominantly white ones were able to keep black students out due to high tuition costs, fees, books, and other expenses. UMass, on the other hand, tried to attract the students who were kept out of these white institutions. However, the university only had about 50 black students enrolled out of a total 18,000 in 1965; with the majority of the African American students being primarily graduate students. This  group of students and teachers wanted to make a change at UMass. They wanted to see more black students enrolled at the university, and they wanted a department that taught the history of their people. They wanted a black studies department. Afro-American studies at UMass formed from this small group of students and faculty members(2). A lot of the black students and faculty at the university had come from black institutions. They had also participated in the Civil Rights Movement (2). These people bonded together based off of their own personal experiences. In the face of adversity they all gathered together. The black students at UMass, while trying to create this department, implemented many of the tactics used in the Civil Rights Movement. They sang songs, told stories and discussed the news. And when they held “church,” the most important topic was discussed, the future education of black people in this country (2).

The staff questioned why black students across the country were not entirely attracted to UMass. During the 1950’s, black colleges began to drop their courses in black literature and history(2). The small community of students and teachers at UMass studied both black colleges and white colleges from the North, and examined exactly what changes needed to be made in order to increase black enrollment. From the information they gathered, they began to build a curriculum that would improve both black and white colleges, and by 1966 they had an outline for a curriculum, cultural program, and supporting services(2).

Many things stood in the way of creating a black studies department. A lot of opposition came from the white faculty. Michael Thelwell, the founding chairman of Afro-American Studies Department, and former SNCC member, said that the white faculty was the real problem :

“They, the white intellectuals, were the bearers and supporters of the American tradition which has always been against Afro-Americans, relegating us in history to a few easily disposed-of stereotypes or conveniently ignoring our existence. Thus “the weight of most white intellectuals is against us–the proponents of Afro-American studies.”  (2)

However, not all opposition came solely from the white faculty, some came from black faculty as well. Some black faculty felt that the creation of black studies was dangerous (2).  Another problem they faced was getting the black students into the university. Administration stated that the reason behind the sparse enrollment of African American students at the university was likely because they “lacked the qualifications”(2). Many of the students whom the black students and faculty tried to recruit came from poor neighborhoods with terrible school systems. White faculty were against the admission of African Americans because they felt that Negroes couldn’t grasp the material that was being taught(2).

The black faculty knew that they had to combat these problems in order to help newly admitted black students at the university. They decided to take initiative, in an attempt to make the university more responsive to black residents of the Commonwealth. They wrote a grant proposal for the creation of a program called the Committee for the Collegiate Education of Black Students, also know as CCEBS. The CCEBS did not just service black people but whites and other minorities as well(2). In 1968, after the creation of CCEBS, they presented the university with a list of 120 names of potential black students with hopes that 60 of them would be admitted. However, the university only initially wanted two or three students on this list. The five black faculty members threatened to quit if the university did not meet their demands. Eventually, the university gave in and admitted a group 51 African men and 70 women for the fall semester of 1968(4). These 121 students were greeted with a little animosity when they first arrived on campus. Both the town and campus community made the students feel less like humans and more like lab rats (2).

The fight for black studies still continued after the admission of the 121 African American students though, and in 1969, black studies began being offered through the English department . Michael Thelwell, Eugene and Esther Terry, and Bernard Bell taught these courses. These four lead the way in attempting to get approval for the founding of a black studies department. On April 22, 1970 the UMass Board of Trustees approved the Afro-American studies department, which was named after W.E.B Du Bois(3). The department consisted of 20 full time faculty members, a director, an administrative staff, and a library collection in Afro-American studies . The department was also set to offer a series of  different courses (3). The original faculty consisted of Michael Thelwell, Roslyn Walker, Sidney Kaplan, William J. Wilson, Bernard Bell, Esther Terry, Ben Wambari, and Cass Turner. The department also consisted of student members Nate Sims, Robyn Chandler, Stephan Bowden, Steve Moore, Carlton E. Brown and Rockwood Green.

One of the biggest additions that came as a part of the creation of the Afro American Studies was the New Africa House. Located in the central residential area on campus, the New Africa house served as a “black cultural center in which students could meet and help one another navigate what was still an overwhelmingly white environment”(4). The New Africa house came to be in 1969.

One day in the spring of 1969, a gang of “frat boys” chased several black students to their dormitory. When the students secured themselves behind a locked door, the fraternity gang left, vowing to gather an even larger number and return to “do battle.” Barricading themselves in the house, the black students went through the halls knocking on doors, announcing that when the fraternity gang returned, the students housed in Mills were “either with them or against them” and if they were not “with them” they should leave. the dorm. It was easier to fight, they felt. if all their foes were in one place. Uninvolved white students left the building. Meanwhile, more black students joined those in the house and what began as a defense tactic on the part of harassed black students was blown into a full-fledged building take-over reminiscent of those taking place over the nation–demands and all” (2).

After the take over of the George Mills House the dorm was eventually renamed the New Africa House. The house has recently under gone some renovations and, now, looks better than ever.

IN 1994 the University approved the naming of the campus library the W.E.B Du Bois library, in honor of  W.E.B Du Bois. Prior to the naming of the library, some administrators resisted the name change because they felt that it should be named after a future generous donor. Also, some didn’t want to name the library after Du Bois because they felt that he was both a communist and anti- American. In 1996 the library was officially dubbed the W.E.B. Du Bois Library(6).

This past year the W.E.B Du Bois Department of African American Studies celebrated its 40-year anniversary. Today, the department serves as one of the largest African American Studies departments in the country. Many of the faculty members who took part in establishing the department are still working for the department today. If it were not for their bravery and activism, we might not have a black studies department. They are the pioneers of this department and helped change the lives of not only past and present, but also future African American students at the University of Massachusetts.


Work Cited

1.”About Us.” University of Massachusetts Amherst. Web. Apr. 2011. <>.

2.”Planning for the 1980’s.” University of Massachusetts Amherst. Web. 10 Apr. 2011. <>.

“3.Press Release.” University of Massachusetts Amherst. Web. Apr. 2011. <>.

4.Sippel, John. “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” UMass Amherst Magazine 2010: 18-25. Web. <>.

5.”The W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies » New Africa House.” Blogs at UMass Amherst. Web. Apr. 2011. <>.

6.”W.E.B. Du Bois Library (UMass Amherst) [DuBoisopedia ].” UMass Amherst Libraries. Web. 14 Apr. 2011. <>.


251 thoughts on “Afro-American Studies begins

  1. I am a former student of Umass Amherst with a close association with the W.E.B. Dubois dept. I owe a tremendous debt to the wisdom and intellegence of the Professors and Staff of the department.
    The analysis and chronicle of the department’s struggles/history

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  6. This past year the W.E.B Du Bois Department of African American Studies celebrated its 40-year anniversary. Today, the department serves as one of the largest African American Studies departments in the country. Many of the faculty members who took part in establishing the department are still working for the department today. If it were not for their bravery and activism, we might not have a black studies department. They are the pioneers of this department and helped change the lives of not only past and present, but also future African American students at the University of Massachusetts.

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