Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Deans of Women at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Story Left Untold

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Deans of Women at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Story Left Untold

Article excerpt

There is a paucity of historical discourse on the distinct contributions of African American women serving as deans of women at historically Black colleges and universities. Using historical research and the case study approach, the analysis focused on three deans of women: Lucy Diggs Slowe-Howard University, Owena Hunter Davis-Johnson C. Smith University, and Jewel B. Long-Hampton University, covering a period of 84 years (1922-2006). The research indicated that deans of women were highly educated and accomplished idealists who made significant contributions to the holistic development of African American women, historic Black institutions, and the student personnel movement in the South.

The study of the deans of women was to inform practitioners in the field of higher education of a historical development that has received limited attention in the past. The entrance of female students into institutions of higher learning during the 19th and early 20th centuries brought with it the notion that special types of services and programs were needed to facilitate the success of this special student population. The Office of Dean of Women was created at a select number of established universities in the early 1900s, to fulfill an important role of ensuring that outside the classroom experiences of female students complimented their overall academic success (Holmes, 1939).

Little attention has been paid by historians to the unique role and significant contributions of African American women serving as deans at historically Black institutions of higher learning (Nidiffer, 2000; Perkins, 1996). This led to the following questions: what was the mission of the deans of women at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), how did they contribute as mentors and leaders, what barriers and experiences did they overcome, and what lessons can be gleaned from these stories and applied to contemporary issues in student affairs work in higher education?


A compelling interest in the role of the dean of women at HBCUs and their contributions to female students, the institutions they served, and the student affairs profession in general, served as a guide to this study. By noting individuals exemplifying outstanding service, educators in the field will have an opportunity to enhance their understanding of the past and develop role models for the future. This study intended to be interpretive as well as constructive. Fallibility in this qualitative approach was acknowledged although it was asserted, "that it is possible through careful analysis and multiple sources of evidence to discover what 'really' happened during a given time period with respect to the phenomenon being investigated" (Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2003, p. 514).


A review of literature revealed a number of themes on the general topic, including: historical sketches of deans of women, barriers and experiences of African American women in higher education, and women as mentors and leaders. It is in this context mat the authors found the untold stories of many outstanding African American women and their contributions to me field of student affairs at their respective institutions.

Historical Sketches

Jana Nidifier' s book, Pioneering Deans of Women: More than Wise and Pious Matrons (2000), was one of the few studies on deans of women since the 1930s. The author reviewed the history of deans of women and illuminated the importance of its role in shaping me field of student affairs. In a designated section of a chapter, Nidiffer regretfully acknowledged that African American deans have been paid minimal attention. An exception is some insightful work on Lucy Diggs Slowe, one of me better known African American Deans of Women and a subject of mis study (Anderson, 1989; Dyson, 1941; Logan, 1982; Ransom, 1937; Wright, 1971).

A number of authors, including Drum (1993), Dunn (1968), McCandless (2003), Mina (2000), Nidiffer (2002), Schwartz (1996), and Turtle (1996 & 2004), examined the history and importance of deans of women. …

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