Welcoming the Unwelcomed: A Social Justice Imperative of African-American Female Leaders at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

By Gaetane, Jean-Marie | Educational Foundations, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Welcoming the Unwelcomed: A Social Justice Imperative of African-American Female Leaders at Historically Black Colleges and Universities


Gaetane, Jean-Marie, Educational Foundations


The social movements during the last 50 years of the 20th century were among the most tumultuous years for people of color. African Americans, among other groups, confronted obstacles on what they could be and do. Negative social attitudes and the status of ethnic and racial groups were challenged and underwent change (Valverde, 2003). African Americans experienced harsh treatments in educational institutions and had to develop unconventional ways to advocate for themselves and those in their community (Jean-Marie, James, & Bynum, 2006). As the civil rights movement became a full-scale struggle, like many people of color, the African-American female leaders in this study confronted and disrupted institutions thought to be responsible for their oppression (Jean-Marie, 2005).

The purpose of this paper is to explore the experiences of three African-American women leaders in historically black institutions in one southeastern state. This paper documents how individuals committed to social justice and racial uplift connect their professional work with social and political activism in the quest for equality and justice for African Americans--and all people. Presented are women whose elementary and secondary educational foundations were formed in segregated schools (i.e., fewer resources, lack of funding, limited teachers and classrooms). Their coming of age was inextricably linked to the larger changing consciousness of African Americans who challenged the existing social order in new ways (Ladson-Billings, 1997; Robnett, 1997). When the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling declared that schools should be desegregated with all deliberate speed (Valverde, 2003), these African-American women were among the freedom fighters who integrated public schools, and later pursued higher education and professional careers (Jean-Marie, 2005). According to Valverde (2003),

   Education in general and higher education in particular became
   important for the individual, but especially for persons of color,
   who were consistently denied access to formal school early in the
   development of the United States and were more recently denied
   access to desegregated and good schools. (p. 12)

The women leaders in this study come from a tradition of protest [that has been transmitted] across generations by older relatives, black educational institutions, churches, and protest organizations (Morris, 1984).

Similar to these participants, many African-American professionals dedicate themselves to ensure that future generations are successfully prepared to embrace personal and societal challenges. The participants' commitment to racial uplift is related to their own experiences--born, educated, and started their educational career in a segregated America, both de jure and later de factor (Valverde, 2003). In particular, the perspectives of African-American women who were born and raised during the pre- and post-Civil Rights Movement are uniquely shaped (Loder, 2005b; Robnett, 1997) by their experiences. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling had an impact on the social lives of African-Americans who were previously denied equal access to education.

Theoretical Framework

The historic ruling of Brown v. Board of Education redefined what public education should be for people of color in a time where "separate but equal" dominated social institutions in the United States. The ruling was met with resistance by the dominant class who wanted to maintain the status quo. African Americans, nonetheless, persisted in their struggle to end social injustices, bigotry, and discrimination, and dismantled institutional practices and structures that hindered their advancement in society. Rather than a cry of "let us in," there were increasing calls for self-definition and self-determination among African Americans and other people of color (Gordon, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1997). The collective mission of 'racial uplift' became the mantra that African Americans proposed as their mission.

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