Black women have strived to secure higher education in the United States for more than two centuries. These attempts began before the Civil War and continue to the present. In the process, African American women have earned certificates, bachelors degrees, and various graduate degrees as well as having become college administrators, presidents, and founders of institutions of higher education. Historian Stephanie Y. Evans has noted that those, such as Prudence Crandall, who initially sought to educate Black women in the nineteenth century often faced violence not just in the South but in the North as well. Black women persisted and began to secure higher education degrees in the early decades of the nineteenth century, many times facing daunting challenges. A vast majority of these women secured their degrees in the North in states such as Ohio and primarily at institutions such as Oberlin, Antioch, and Wilberforce. Several Black women obtained a literary degree (L.D.) from Oberlin before the Civil War, making it the leading institution to award Black women higher education degrees or certificates in Antebellum America. Lucy Ann Stanton is likely the first Black woman to obtain such a degree from Oberlin in 1850. Sarah Jane Early attended Oberlin at about this same time and received a degree in classical studies in 1856 from the institution. Early also became the first Black woman college instructor in US history when she was hired to teach as an instructor at Wilberforce University in 1858. Both Stanton and Early are among the twelve Black women who received degrees from Oberlin before 1860. While Stanton is regarded by most to be the first Black woman to receive a certificate from an institute of higher education in the United States, Mary Jane Patterson was the first Black woman to obtain a BA degree, which she earned from Oberlin in 1862. Stanton received what was known as a literary degree not a bachelors degree and thus is not considered to be the first Black woman to receive a BA degree from a four-year college. It is only known that early received “a degree” in classical studies that was likely not a BA according to records available. Two years later, Rebecca Lee graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1864. Lee is the first known Black woman to secure a medical degree in the United States. At least a dozen Black women obtained their degrees from southern colleges before 1865 as well. By 1865, three notable Black women educators had secured BA degrees from Oberlin including Patterson, Fanny Marion Jackson Coppin, and Frances Josephine Norris. Patterson and Coppin went on to teach at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which was one of the first high schools for African Americans in the United States and eventually became Cheyney University. The nineteenth century was a formative time of development for Black women in education. These women played pivotal roles in building Black educational institutions; Oberlin and Wilberforce were proving grounds in that several Black women who secured their degrees from these institutions went on to become educators and founders of schools as well as civil rights advocates more broadly. We see this in the cases of Patterson and Coppin. After she graduated from Oberlin, Patterson taught at the Institute for Colored Youth for five years. She later went on to teach in Washington, DC at the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (M Street School, which later became known as Paul Laurence Dunbar High School), where she also served as principal. During her term as principal, Patterson made the school one of the more prestigious high schools for African Americans in the nation. Coppin, born into slavery, was a self-made woman. She worked to secure an education first at the Rhode Island State Normal School, then at Oberlin. She became principal at the Institute of Colored Youth and expanded the curriculum significantly making it one of the more notable schools for African Americans in the region and nation. Her expansion included the creation of a Women’s Industrial Exchange and Industrial Department. Coppin State University, located in Baltimore, Maryland, is named for Fannie Jackson Coppin. By demanding access to education, Black women were at the forefront of the struggle for Black equality through the twentieth century. The quest for a quality education was considered by African Americans to be a major civil rights issue through the twentieth century. It was in the early decades of the twentieth century that Black woman began to secure graduate degrees in larger numbers. In this history, women such as Marion Thompson Wright, Constance Baker Motley, and Autherine Lucy led the way in demanding equal access to educational facilities across the nation. For many Black Americans, the acquisition of a higher education was seen as a pathway to citizenship and freedom. The vast majority of the scholarly literature on Black Americans in higher education has focused primarily on Black men. But, more recently, scholars have begun to focus specifically on the role of Black women in higher education. This field is defined by intellectual biographies, social histories of pivotal institutions such as Oberlin and Spelman, and edited volumes that contain interviews and personal narratives, as well as some key autobiographies of women who participated in key moments in the history of Black women in higher education. Some reoccurring themes in this history include race consciousness, gender equity, and class awareness. This essay is divided into two parts. The first part contains a brief discussion and list of general overviews, critical biographies, edited volumes, and journals, with the second part focusing on the major historical eras in the African American experience in relation to Black women and higher education. These major moments in African American life include the long nineteenth century, the New Negro Era, the World War II Era into the 1950s, the Civil Rights Era, and the Post-Civil Rights Era. A topical-chronological approach primarily defines this analysis because this allows for one to more succinctly get a sense of the historiography of the topic as a whole. Black women’s history is still a relatively new field and much of the work on Black women in higher education is to be found in biographies, survey histories of a particular era, and edited volumes, with few monographs on the subject. The history of Black women in higher education has only recently become a subfield in historical studies. It is only in the recent past that a few survey and monograph studies have begun to appear on Black women and higher education that have helped to move the historiography of this subject forward beyond contributionist histories, biographies, and edited volumes.
There are but a few texts on the history of Black women in higher education, though some notable overviews exist that primarily tend to be social histories focused on Black women in the club movement, with some intellectual histories on Black women academics, novelists, race women, and thinkers having appeared since the 1990s This is fine. Also, the first book-length scholarly analysis of women in higher education, Solomon 1986, is focused primarily on white women in higher education, though this work provides an important framework for thinking about the subject of women in higher education more broadly. Following the publication of Solomon’s text, several overviews on educated Black women working in various capacities as novelists, writers, social workers, and public intellectuals began to appear. Works that followed the publication of Solomon’s book, though not always specifically on the topic of Black women in higher education, provide context on the lives of Black women who have had access to higher education, many of whom became educators themselves, and utilized their knowledge as writers, activists, institution builders, and race women. These publications include Giddings 1988 on one of the first Black sororities in history, Delta Sigma Theta, primarily an organizational history of this group, which was soon followed by Carby 1989 on Black women novelists, many of whom possessed a higher education; Noble 1993, a book chapter that is a survey of Black women in higher education in the twentieth century; and White 1999, a survey history of Black club women, many of whom were active in all-Black sororities at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and in civil rights organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Wright Myers 2002 offers an important sociological study on Black women in higher education by emphasizing the interlocking systems of race and gender in the lives of Black women involved in higher education. This work is soon followed by texts more specifically on Black professional women and Black women in higher education, such as Brown 2006, a survey history of Black professional women during World War One Era, and Evans 2007, the first survey history of Black women in higher education, covering some of the earliest women to secure doctoral degrees at the higher education level. A few years later, Perkins 2015 is an important journal article on Black women in higher education, detailing their quest for higher education and their embrace of collective work. More recently, Cooper 2017 is an intellectual history of Black race women, many of whom acquired a college degree and became involved in civil rights politics.
Brown, Nikki. Private Politics, Public Voices: Black Women’s Activism from World War I to the New Deal. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Brown’s text is a useful overview of Black women professionals and their activism primarily in the Interwar Era that focuses on their support of the war effort and social work. This is a timeframe that has not been thoroughly covered by scholars who study African American women in US history and higher education.
Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
This text is one of the first to examine the intellectual activity of African American women in the nineteenth century through a discussion of the Black woman novelist. Carby traces the rise of the Black woman novelist and how these women used the novel as a form of political and cultural reconstruction including some discussion of notable figures such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins.
Cooper, Brittany C. Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2017.
Much of the scholarship on race and politics in African American history has focused on race men such as W. E. B. Du Bois, but Cooper’s text is an important study that focuses instead on race and gender in the intellectual life and thought of race women. Some of the individuals featured in Cooper’s study were the first Black women to secure higher education degrees, including graduate degrees.
Evans, Stephanie Y. Black Women in the Ivory Tower, 1850–1954. Tallahassee: University of Florida Press, 2007.
This text is likely the most definitive work on African American women in higher education, covering one hundred years. Evans is one of the first historians to publish a comprehensive book-length survey and scholarly analysis on Black women with college degrees, including some who also secured graduate degrees before 1954.
Giddings, Paula. In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement. New York: William Morrow, 1988.
This text by Paula Giddings is one of the first scholarly surveys of the largest and oldest Black women’s organization in the United States: Delta Sigma Theta. As an organizational and social history of the Black women’s sorority Delta Sigma Theta, founded at Howard University in 1913, the book covers a vast amount of information on the experience of Black women in higher education including some discussion of the group’s concern for Black civil rights and women’s empowerment.
Noble, J. “The Higher Education of African American Women in the Twentieth Century.” In Women in Higher Education: A Feminist Perspective. Edited by J. Glazer, E. Bensimon, and B. Townsend, 329–336. New York: Ginn Press, 1993.
This chapter is a survey of Black women in higher education during the twentieth century that serves as a useful reference on the subject. J. Noble covers a lot of ground in terms of relevant information on the subject of African American women and higher education and points us to new directions in an emergent field.
Perkins, Linda. “Bound to Them by a Common Sorrow: African American Women, Higher Education, and Collective Advancement.” Journal of African American History 100.4 (Fall 2015): 721–747.
Linda Perkins is one of the leading scholars on the subject of Black women and higher education. She has written a number of books and journal articles on the subject. In this article, she uses an intersectional approach in understanding the quest for higher education on the part of some leading Black women education activists and their embrace of collective work as a strategy toward Black women’s empowerment.
Solomon, Barbara. In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.
Solomon’s text is one of the more important histories of women in higher education. This text provides key information and context on the opportunities and challenges faced by women in the history of higher education. It remains a critical resource on the topic of women in the history of higher education.
White, Deborah Gray. Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894–1994. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.
This text by historian Deborah Gray White traverses one hundred years of Black women in US society, with a focus on the Black women’s club movement that necessarily includes a discussion of Black women in higher education. Many of the women who formed the literary clubs, self-help associations, and civil rights organizations such as the NAACP were some of the first Black women to secure higher education degrees.
Wright Myers, Lena. A Broken Silence: Voice of African American Women in the Academy. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 2002.
Myers’s text is a sociological study that considers the interlocking systems of race and gender in academia in the United States. This analysis is based on narratives of African Americans from various disciplines employed at predominantly white colleges and universities. These narratives are useful primary sources of information for the historian interested in examining Black women in higher education and their thoughts about academe in the twenty-first century.
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