Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

In Defense of Themselves: The Black Student Struggle for Success and Recognition at Predominantly White Colleges and Universities

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

In Defense of Themselves: The Black Student Struggle for Success and Recognition at Predominantly White Colleges and Universities

Article excerpt

In the late T960s, Black students at predominantly White colleges and universities reevaluated the education they received. Influenced by the emerging Black Power movement, they sought to make their institutions more receptive to their needs, representative of their culture, and relevant to their situation as Blacks in America. However, many institutions were slow to change or were resistant. This article documents the support systems Black students created to ensure their psychological and academic well-being at predominantly White institutions and examines how Black students of that era cede, fined what it meant to be a "successful" Black student.


Black student activism at predominantly White institutions of higher education in the late 1960s and 1970s began as an active response to their situation. Not unlike Black students in predominantly White primary and secondary school settings, many Black college students felt alienated and disaffected from their new academic settings and experienced overt or veiled hostility from White classmates, faculty, and administrators. However, unlike younger children, Black college students were themselves able to force change at their respective institutions and help shape the nature, direction, and purpose of their postsecondary education. This article examines the influence of Black Power era students on the programs and policies at predominantly White colleges and universities (PWCUs). It begins with a brief history of Black educational efforts to highlight persistent and reoccurring themes. Next, it discusses the strategies and goals Black college students of the late 1960s and 1970s employed to ensure their psychological and academic survival at predominantly White institutions including the creation of Black student unions, Black Studies departments, Black cultural centers, and academic support services. These services, often initiated by the Black students themselves, were established to promote their greater retention, academic success, and resiliency at PWCUs. Finally, the article describes how Black students at these institutions redefined the notion of academic "success" consonant with the newly political nature of Black identity at the time, the shifting perceptions of what it meant to be a "Negro" or "Black," and the re-examination of traditional models of individual achievement. It examines how Black students merged notions of academic excellence and notions of social justice to generate new understandings about their roles, responsibilities, and rewards.

Of course, not all Black students participated in the protests that precipitated the institutionalization of support programs for Black students and other responses to the increasing Black presence on predominantly White campuses. However, many did participate to varying degrees. This article is concerned with those students who demanded that the campus climate, organizations, and curriculum be responsive to their reality as Blacks in America and took it upon themselves to establish within the nation's higher education system organizations and programs for that purpose.


The African experience in the Americas has been fraught with social subordination, political repression, and economic exploitation. Though overtly discriminatory laws such as the Black Codes and other "Jim Crow" mandates have been stricken from the public record in the United States, African American subjugation persists, albeit in a more covert manner, but often with same insidious effects. Despite these barriers, African Americans throughout history have struggled for liberation using whatever tools they could obtain. Recognizing that education and subjugation cannot coexist, African Americans early identified education as one of the most valuable means by which to improve their standing in the U.S. (Watkins, 1993). They subsequently molded their educational initiatives and curricular approaches to respond as effectively as possible to social, political, and economic conditions that could, at best, be described as tenuous and, at worst, be viewed as unjust and inhumane. …

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