Lucy Diggs Slowe: Champion of the Self-Determination of African-American Women in Higher Education

Article excerpt

While we are aware of the prominent African-American women educators of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who were teachers, principals, and school founders, such as Fanny Jackson Coppin, Anna Julia Cooper, Lucy Laney, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, and Mary McLeod Bethune; we know little of the role of African-American women educators in higher education. Although African-American women educators were largely represented in the public and private elementary and secondary schools of the nation's black communities, African-American women also served on the faculties of selected historically black colleges from their inception and beginning with Lucy Diggs Slowe, they served as administrators.

This essay will discuss the important contributions to higher education of Lucy Diggs Slowe, the first African-American woman dean at Howard University in Washington, D.C. (1922-37). An examination of Slowe is important not only because of her prominence at Howard University, but also for the impact of her educational philosophy on the higher education of African-American women in general. As one of the earliest black women formally trained in student personnel, during her fifteen year tenure at Howard, Slowe became an outspoken advocate for self-determination, respect, and advancement of college-trained African-American women. Slowe took seriously the charge that the educated members of the race should be in leadership positions. She believed strongly that African-American women had a vital role to play in race leadership and, as a result, she sought to develop the leadership skills of black college women. Slowe's leadership in black women's higher education resulted in the establishment of two important organizations for the advocacy of African-American college women - the National Association of College Women (NACW) and the National Association of Women's Deans and Advisors of Colored Schools (NAWDACS).

Slowe's educational and racial philosophy concerning women is noteworthy because unlike other prominent black women educators of her era whose motivation and rhetoric were often religious, Slowe's desire to enhance black women's status was more pragmatic than spiritual. In addition, unlike many who often discussed educating women for the "uplift" and benefit of the race, Slowe wanted to prepare black women for the "modern" world, a term in vogue among white women educators of the period.(1) At the same time, members of NACW were also affiliated with international groups and efforts for worm peace, and Slowe believed that black women college students should be exposed to and active in such activities.(2) While most in the black community viewed teaching as a woman's highest calling, Slowe was very critical of the view that female students should pursue teaching as a profession without providing other options and career choices. As new employment opportunities opened for white women, Slowe felt strongly that black women should be prepared for and aware of these fields as well. Thus, career guidance was an important aspect of her student personnel program.

Slowe was also unique in that she was extremely critical of the conservative religion to which most black women students were exposed in their families and communities. She believed strongly that such religion often contributed to the conservative and sexist beliefs of many black families. She addressed all of these issues through her work at Howard and with the NACW and the NAWDACS.

Slowe's Early Life

Lucy Diggs Slowe was born July 4, 1885 in Berryville, Virginia. Orphaned as a young child, Slowe was raised by a paternal aunt, Martha Slowe Prince in Lexington, Virginia. At age thirteen, Slowe and her family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where she attended the separate Colored High School, graduating second in her class in 1904. Following her graduation she entered Howard University on an academic scholarship.

It was at Howard that Slowe's interest in enhancing the quality and status of African-American women's higher education was stimulated. …