The Du Bois Department can be studied over several distinct time periods:

Departmental Pre-history to 1970 

Founded in 1863 under the provisions of the Federal Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act to provide instruction to Massachusetts citizens in “agricultural, mechanical, and military arts,” the first name of our university was the Massachusetts Agricultural College, and also by the sobriquet “Mass Aggie” or “MAC” In the fall of 1867, the first class of about 50 students arrived and William Clark became the first full-fledged President. George “Ruff” Bridgeforth became the first student of African descent. From Bridgeforth in 1899 through to the 1960s the numbers of African American students admitted was very small if any at all in a given year. That would begin to change after the 1960s.

The 1960s encompasses the rapid growth of the campus from Mass Aggie to a comprehensive state flagship university, the increase in the number of students identifying as “Black” and “Afro-American,” and the development of an anti-white supremacy/anti-colonial critique of the campus curriculum and culture. A synopsis and timeline of the University’s growth is here. From 1954 to 1964 the student body more than doubled to 10,500 undergraduates. In the 1968-69 school year an Afro-American Studies Program is formed in the English Department with the support of faculty members Sidney Kaplan and Jules Chametsky, along with their dean Jeremiah Allen.

Founding faculty member Playthell Benjamin, pictured here, presenting a lecture at UMass, offers a history of the founding of the Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as only he could narrate. Click Dr. DU BOIS Then and Now, an article on his blog COMMENTARIES ON THE TIMES: Praising Saints, Celebrating Heroes, Unmasking Charlatans, Defending the Defenseless and Chastising Scoundrels. It is a lengthy piece and the first half is about Du Bois’ life story. After that is the story of the UMass department named in honor the scholar from Great Barrington, MA.

The creation of the Du Bois Department at UMass became a fulcrum for change throughout the Valley, especially at the nearby colleges of Amherst (and later Hampshire), Mount Holyoke, and Smith. At Amherst College there was a “take-over” in February of 1970:

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Amherst (Mass.) – News coverage of the Black student takeover at Amherst College (on behalf of Black students of the Five College community), including protest rally; protestors’ addresses; discussion occupation of Mills House/New Africa House at UMass; Black Studies and Black internationalism; Mount Holyoke; interviews with participants in takeover. Mark Mills and others reporting.
(WFCR Radio Broadcast Collection)


The New African Renaissance and the Department’s Early History, 1970-1980

In this formative decade the department reached its zenith with almost a score of full time faculty members that included Michael Thelwell, Esther Terry, Chester Davis, John Bracey, Max Roach, Nelson Stevens, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Johnnetta Cole, Femi Richards, Paul Carter Harrison, William “Bill” Strickland, Julius Lester, J. Dovi Afesi, Ernest Allen, Diana Ramos, Ray Miles, Paul Puryear, Archie Shepp, Eugene Terry, and Allan Austin. In 1972,  Chinua Achebe accepted an offer to teach at UMass Amherst as a visiting professor. Speaking in 1975, as part of the Chancellor’s Lecture Series,  Achebe gave a talk titled “An Image of Africa” that criticized Joseph Conrad as a “bloody racist” and called out Conrad’s famous work, “Heart of Darkness,” for dehumanizing Africans. The lecture, which generated controversy among many scholars of English literature, was published in 1977 in The Massachusetts Review as “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.’”

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Seated left to right at the formal signing of the Du Bois papers contract Graduate School Dean Mortimer Appley; Chancellor Randolph Bromery; Mrs. Shirley Graham Du Bois;Dr. Herbert Aptheker, custodian and editor of the papers; and Michael Thelwell, head of the W.E.B.Du Bois Department of African-American Studies. Standing are the attorneys who completed the contract. Bernard J… more
(University Photograph Collection) Amherst Record, May 27, 1973

In 1977, Contributions in Black Studies: A Journal of African and Afro-American Studies (CIBS) started what became a twenty-year run. A periodical publication of the Five Colleges, Inc., a consortial partnership of Africana/Black Studies departments at Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges, together with the Du Bois Department, CIBS was largely edited and produced on the UMass campus. The W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass Amherst is pleased to provide open access to the articles that appeared in CIBS through an electronic repository that can be accessed here.

The Du Bois Department’s first Ph.D. graduate in the days before our own doctoral program was created occurred in 1975.  From the Fall 1999 UMass Amherst magazine


 Having absorbed the English canon from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, Radwa Ashour might have deemed her literary education complete. The young scholar saw gaps, however, where the African-American writers should have been.As a university student in her native Cairo in the early 1970s, says Ashour, she’d found no one who considered writers in the African diaspora worthy of study. But in 1973, a joyfully-cultivated friendship with Shirley Graham Du Bois ­ world traveler, litterateur, and widow of W.E.B. ­ led Ashour to UMass. Madame Du Bois, as the école-educated Ashour still calls her late liaison to Amherst, was living in Cairo at the time, and pointed the young Egyptian toward the then-infant Afro-American Studies department here.“She said, ‘the best department in the United States is at UMass,’ says Ashour, remembering how Du Bois returned from a visit to Massachusetts with an application and a scholarship for her protegé.
Here Ashour became the first doctoral candidate in English to specialize in black American literature. Afro-Am didn’t have its own graduate program until 1996, but founding faculty member Michael Thelwell ’69G says Ashour is regarded as his department’s first Ph.D. Today, as chair of English Language and Literature at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Ashour has watched her field blossom into one of the most popular in the department. She remains a vital link between UMass and Cairo, sending two of her proteges stateside recently: one to write a dissertation on playwright Amiri Baraka, another to research the influence of the Vietnam War on theater.Why the interest in African-American literature in Africa in the last decade or so? Because, said Ashour on a visit to UMass last March, works on oppression and the overcoming of oppression speak deeply to readers in the Arab world.Ashour found a receptive audience at her alma mater, where graduate students from several departments and many of UMass’s Palestinian students turned out to hear her lecture, entitled “Eyewitness, Scribe and Storyteller: My Experience as a Novelist.” For Ashour is now a creative writer as well as a scholar; a decade after her sojourn in Prince House, she turned to historical fiction. Her trilogy Granada, Mariama, and Al-Rahil (The Departure), which deals with the 1492 expulsion of Arabs from Spain, was named as Best Book of the Year by the General Egyptian Book Organization in 1994, and won first prize in the first Arab Women’s Book Fair two years later.”The exceptional alertness to time and place, and the need to record, are characteristics common to the writers of my generation,” Ashour said at UMass. Egypt’s turbulent history during her lifetime ­ the British occupation, the struggle for the Suez Canal, and war with Israel ­ have left Ashour with a compulsion to understand the past. “Writing is a retrieval of a human will negated,” she said.
Despite Ashour’s popularity at home, only two of her short stories have been translated into English. A memoir of her two years in Amherst ­ Al-Rihlah: Ayyam Talibah Misriyyah fi Amrikah [The Journey: American Memoirs of An Egyptian
Student] is among her untranslated works. Even with the bestowal of the Nobel Prize on Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz last year, the Arab literary mind remains opaque to the West, Ashour says.
“In Egypt, we have a flag, an airline of our own, we are an independent country,” she said. “But there is this feeling we are not free to be who we are in the new world order.
“I am always conscious I’m a person from the Third World. I’m an Egyptian, an Arab, and an African all in one. Also, I’m a woman. I know to be all these things is to be particularly conscious of constraint.”
Ali CroliusN.B.: Prof. Ashour, ’75G, died November 30, 2014.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radwa_Ashour
Before he was assassinated in Guyana on June 13, 1980, Walter Rodney, the great Guyanese historian, political activist and scholar, gave a lecture in the department on December 7, 1978, entitled “The Socio-Political Effects of the Current World Crisis on Africa and the Caribbean.”


Backlash: The Department in the Reagan Era, 1980-1990

After Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, all over the country Africana/Black Studies programs and departments were being attacked with an intensity like never before. Emboldened by Reaganism, writers appeared that bemoaned the destruction of the canon of Western Civilization and the stupidity of so-called political correctness and multiculturalism. Two books from 1987, that were characteristic of this line of attack were The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom, and Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E. D. Hirsch.

UMass was no exception to the national trend. When Chester “Chet” Davis was chair in the 1980s, the department experienced great successes as well as suffered some setbacks. Success -wise the department hired David Graham Du Bois, former Black Panther Party spokesman, in 1983 (where he remained until his retirement in 2001). Besides his teaching and writing, he devoted much of his life to preserving the legacy of his stepfather through the establishment of the W.E.B. Du Bois Foundation. He also served on the board of the Du Bois Memorial Center for Pan-African Culture in Accra, Ghana.

The department also helped convince James Baldwin to accept a Professorship of Literature and Afro-American Studies within the Five College consortium. He spent two years in the valley teaching and inspiring many students on all five campuses. After Baldwin’s death in 1987, the relationship of faculty member Julius Lester to Afro-American Studies deteriorated and resulted in his transferring out to Judaic Studies. For the story, read “Don’t Believe the Hype: Chronicle of a Mugging by the Media [a documentary history of the debate between the W.E.B. Du Bois Dept. of Afro-American Studies and Prof. Julius Lester, Univ. of Mass.-Amherst],” published in The Black Scholar Vol. 19, No. 6, BLACK EDUCATION (November/December 1988), pp. 27-43. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41067593. See also: “Action at Massachusetts U. Raises Censorship Cry,” Special to the New York Times published: May 29, 1988.


Shaping the Future: The Creation of the Doctorate in Africana Studies, 1990-2000


Links to the Du Bois Department Digital Archive:

The above webliography and notes are part of the research of the seventh chair of the Du Bois Department, Amilcar Shabazz for the comprehensive history of the Du Bois Department he is writing. To offer original historical materials and otherwise assist this project, contact him as shabazz@umass.edu.

Other pieces on the web related to this research:

“Afro-American Studies begins,” Bryant Craft, The Formation of Afro-American Studies (radicalumass’s blog: Histories of activism at UMass)


2 thoughts on “History

  1. Elizabeth Strouse

    dear Dr Shabazz,

    I am writing to you to ask about one of your first faculty members – from the seventies. When I was 16, my best friend was named Chrystal Anderson, her father was a pentecostal minister with a wonderful choir, and her mother was a black studies professor who left to work at U Mass Amherst. I have totally lost touch with these wonderful people – and would love to find them again. Could you help me? Thanks so much for your time and attention.

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