But What About Class?

The Return of the Afro-American Studies Minor shows increased interest from all races
Breeze, December 10, 1992

On December 10, 1992, The Breeze, Madison’s student newspaper, announced that a former minor would be reconsidered for the next year’s course catalog.  That minor, African-American studies, had originally been provided in 1980; however, it had faded away in the 1986-1987 year, unbeknownst to both Dr. Galgano, head of the history department, and Dr. Walker, coordinator of the minor.  Dr. Walker announced that she had never even been warned that the minor would no longer be offered.  In 1992, however, students illustrated a lot of interest in bringing the minor back (Breeze 70, no. 26).

While the minor itself may not have been offered until 1980, its foundations began in 1976.  In the spring of 1976, the Black Student Alliance held a protest.  As part of their demands, they requested “qualified professors to teach ethnic courses” and “increased curriculum relating to minorities.”  At approximately the same time, Madison College hired Jackie Walker, who specialized in African-American history, into their history department (Breeze 54, no. 2).  In addition, in September 1976, Dr. William Harris spoke in the Minority Affairs Coalition hosted by Madison College.  Harris was the dean of Afro-American studies at the University of Virginia (Breeze 54, no. 7).  He would provide an outline for what an African-American studies program might look like.

In the Spring of 1977 Madison offered a course on Alex Haley’s Roots, taught by Jackie Walker. Prior to this, the school had only offered one course in African-American history, and this new course would closely examine the dynamics of the black family.  This course would encourage black students to both acknowledge, discover, and cherish their history and heritage.  White students would, in turn, learn about the struggles present in the African-American past.  Dingledine, head of the history department at the time, claimed that there had been no heavy demand for courses on African-American history, but that he hoped this course would inspire greater interest (Breeze 54, no. 24).  In three years time, Madison would have enough interest to create an African-American studies minor, and although it would fade away, it would eventually return stronger than ever.

Breeze 55, no. 22 November 18, 1977

An effort must be made to hire those that are qualified, not to simply comply with Affirmative Action
Breeze, November 18, 1977

By Fall of that same year, the Afro-American studies minor must have already been in high demand, considering Paul A. Brown writes that “the program should be installed” (Breeze 55, no. 22).  Brown also writes, however, that hiring more black professors in unnecessary.  It does not seem as if Brown intends to discriminate against African-Americans in this regard, but rather, he states that the university should work to hire the best professors possible, in order to provide the best education possible. This indicates the backlash against Affirmative Action that will accompany University of California v. Bakke and the idea of reverse discrimination in the following year.  It was thought that African-American professors should not be hired if they were lesser qualified; however, the fact that Carrier continues to hire African-American faculty and staff during this time proves that African-American professors were equally as qualified for these positions.

These ethnic courses that Madison began to provide were not only beneficial by allowing African-American students to feel more at home and accepted on campus, but they also allowed white students to learn more about African-American culture.  Jackie Walker claims that her classes often had more white students than African-Americans, and while she credits the small number of minorities on campus, it is likely that white students truly wanted to learn about this new culture (Walker, 2013).  In fact, Daphyne Thomas believes that students found it much easier to explore other cultures prior to 1978 and reverse discrimination.  In a southern state, white students were honestly curious about African-American culture, and it was necessary for them to gain a true understanding of diversity in order to dispel racism.  The fact that Madison was historically a teacher’s college made that even more necessary.  In order to create a generation that was not tied down by discrimination, future teachers had to be sure to teach African-American history to their students accurately.  After University of California v. Bakke, offering and taking ethnic classes was a more controversial issue and had to be defended around every corner (Thomas, 2013).

Today, James Madison University offers a minor in Africana studies with courses ranging from English to history to music.  While the program no longer offers Alex Haley’s Roots, it does provide a course on selected topics in Africana Studies as well as a study abroad in Africa or in Diaspora. Over the years, the course has continued to expand, despite the significant threat of reverse discrimination.

Works Cited:

“Black Students to Meet.” Breeze 54, no. 7 (September 24, 1976): 1.

Brown, Paul A. “Prof’s Skin Color Irrelevant.” Breeze 55, no. 22 (November 18, 1977): 3.

Edwards, Lynda. “‘Roots’ Examined in Course.” Breeze 54, no. 24 (December 3, 1976): 7.

Edwards, Susan. “Former Minor May be Reconsidered.” Breeze 70, no. 26 (December 10, 1992): 1, 2.

Thomas, Daphyne. Interview by author. Harrisonburg, VA. March 22, 2013.

Walker, Jackie. Class Speaker. Harrisonburg, VA. March 20, 2013.

Yancey, Dwayne. “BSA Voices Grievances: Coordinator Stresses Minority Involvement.” Breeze 54, no. 2 (September 4, 1976): 8.