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Reflections on the History of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Fordham University

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Published: October 23, 2012

First of all I would like to thank Professor Amir Idris and Dr. Irma Watkins-Owens for inviting me to reflect upon the teaching and studying that I did here at Fordham about forty-five years ago. I arrived at Fordham University in 1966 and departed in 1972 when I left to do my doctorate at Cornell University. I was fired by the university because I did "not show proximate plans for a terminal degree." Although the Department had approved my reappointment unanimously, I had run afoul of the administration and had to go. I had questioned how the institution had used state funds that were designated for black students and that was certainly a no no. I was young and did not know better, but in retrospect it all seemed to have worked out for the better.

I spent the first three years (1966-1968) of my Fordham sojourn at 302 Broadway (near to City Hall) at the School of Education before the entire school moved to the Lincoln Center Campus. Part of the reality of being at the School of Education was that there were no more than fifty black students out of a student body of perhaps one thousand students, which made the black presence there quite a lonely experience. Therefore, we had to fight to get more black students on the campus, which we did and that took up a lot of our time.

In 1966, a crisis broke out in a Harlem middle school when black parents protested that a new school, I.S. 201, was being opened under a white principal. Black parents demanded that the school be integrated, or in the absence of integration, that a Negro principal be installed. They also demanded a voice in the school's curriculum and the power to hire and fire teachers. The Board of Education refused the immediate integration proposal. I supported the parents' demands. Writing in the Curved Horn, Fordham's student newspaper, on October 21, 1966, I noted that there "is a great need for more curricular identity with the contributions of the Negro to American social and cultural life, and the aspirations of its deprived minority. As distinguished from the teachers' sympathetic understanding of the curriculum, there must be, on the part of the teacher, an unbiased interpretation and awareness of the problem that the child faces." In support of this position I drew on John Dewey who in his essay The School and Society observed that "the school itself should be made a genuine part of community life, instead of a place set apart in which to learn lessons. The school therefore gets a chance to be a miniature community, an embryonic society."

This need to infuse African and African-American content into the schools' curriculum was not confined to the elementary schools alone. In 1968 or thereabout I took an art history class with one Miss Gray. I offered to write a research paper on African Art only to be told by her that there was no such thing as African Art. I got a D+ for my effort. It was the only D grade I ever received during my college career. When I insisted that I would take it up with the Dean of the Faculty, Miss Gray informed me that she had already spoken with the dean about it.

As far as I can remember, it was during this time-1966 to 1968-that the agitation for black courses in the curriculum began to arise. This demand took on more steam when we arrived at Lincoln Center at the beginning of the 1968-69 academic year. Apart from its thrust to provide every student with a "social-action project involving them with the poor," the Lincoln College Campus was supposed to absorb the faculties of the Business School and the School of Education. Raymond Schroth notes that the only problem "was that no provision was made for the 302 Broadway faculty of the Business School and the School of Education who were supposed to be melded into the new college." He also noted: "The new fourteen-story classrooms wasn't ready for the first September 1968 class, so students crammed into law-school rooms until February 1969." I could have sworn that we arrived at Fordham a semester before then, but one has to concede in the face of a better and more documented position.

The demand for black courses and a Black Studies department gained much more traction at Lincoln Center. This demand coincided with the anti-Vietnam protests which were taking place on the campuses throughout the country that were following calls for Black Power demonstrations, and the riots that erupted in the inner cities. I am also positive that what was taking place at Rose Hill informed what we were doing at Lincoln Center. Although I cannot remember if there was any active collaboration between the two campuses, I enjoyed a warm friendship and scholarly relationship with Quinton Wilkes, one of the founding members of the African-American Institute at Rose Hill, since we lived in the same building-that is, 3825 Grand Avenue, in the Bronx. His wife, Delores, attended the Lincoln Center campus so that we all partied together and spoke of events that were taking place at Rose Hill and in the nation at large. I had also come to know Mark Naison and Claude Mangum very well. Just for the record, I gave my first professional lecture at Iona College interpreting Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man as a classical work. Mark got me that gig. I do not know if he remembers that.

I graduated from Fordham with my first degree in 1969 and was among the student leaders while I was an undergraduate. In the fall of 1969 I received a presidential scholarship from the university which allowed me to do a master's degree at the university. My presence at the university also allowed me to continue my activist work. During that time I came into contact with Daniel Malette, an activist priest who had come in from Chicago to do a kind of outreach to the inner city for the university. Given my involvement with the students I was asked to be a counselor for the university. Because of the activist work of Father Malette, the university received a small HEOP grant from the state, which allowed me to extend the work I was doing at the university. I began to recruit students in the three target areas: Harlem, Bedford Stuyvesant, and Brownsville. I believe that that work I was doing at Lincoln Center might have been analogous to what Claude was doing for the Upward Bound program at Rose Hill.

There can be no doubt that the demand for and the teaching of black studies at Lincoln Center took its inspiration from the sit-in of Wilkes and others at the office of Martin Meade, Fordham's Dean of Students. Without a doubt, the initiative to form the department was taken by the students, of which I was one. There were no adults around to help us. We at Lincoln Center met continuously with Dean Paul Reiss to form a Black Studies Department at our campus. I don't remember any violent confrontations, but I knew that we kept pressing him to form a department and eventually we were successful.

The agitation for a Black Studies Department became more intense during the academic year 1969-1970. It helped that I was both a counselor (that is, a member of the administration) and a graduate student. There must have been a few courses on the books at the time because in the September 1969 issue of Liberator magazine, in calling for a Black Studies Consortium, I wrote: "Throughout the country, Black students are demanding the setting up of Black Studies programs, and for the most part university administrations have responded in good faith by initiating programs leading to undergraduate degrees in Afro-American Studies. Harvard and Columbia universities are in the process of beginning such programs; Fordham, Wesleyan, and many other university have increased the number of Black-oriented studies."

In the fall of 1969 we had begun to offer black studies courses at Lincoln Center. Our first chairman was Edwina Johnson. I taught an African-American literature course in the spring of 1970, and in the fall of 1970 I received a one-year contract as an instructor of the department which allowed me to expand my offerings in literature. Over the next two years our faculty members consisted of persons such as John Chege from Kenya, in political science, Clayton Riley, and Daniel Watts, the editor of Liberator magazine. So that while Rose Hill had an institute, Lincoln Center had a Black Studies Department at least from 1969. In fact, during that period I remembered a Trinidadian brother, Tony, who had gone to Bensalem College in the Bronx and who, during the academic year 1969-70 had read Walter Rodney's Grounding with My Brothers and had become very intrigued by Rodney's work around the Rastafarians in Jamaica.

At the inception of the department, the students were an integral part of the process. This was to be expected since they were the driving force behind the formation of the department. As a result, the students were actively involved in the decision-making of the department up to and including the hiring and firing of faculty. Two students participated in the governance of the department. In fact, they were so feared and respected that almost every night Edwina Johnson called me at home to the great annoyance of my wife. Clifford Braithwaite and Daryl Johnson were among the leaders of Molimo, the black student organization. They took part in the governance of the department. This arrangement soon led to some problems when the administration, and certainly some faculty members, felt that students should not have such input into the selection and retention of faculty members.

I suspect there was also an inherent tension in being a student, a member of the administration as a counselor (even thought Father Malette did more interfacing with the administration than I), and a faculty member. The big issue that led to the termination of my contract (and even at that point being thrown out of the doctoral program) had to do with how the university was using the funds that were given by the state to the university for the students' use. The university was given a line budget for the use of the HEOP funds, but the university, without the permission of the state, began to transfer funds from one category to another. Franklin Williams, the United States Ambassador when Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown, was a member of the Fordham Board of Trustees. I brought such anomalies to his attention and we (several students) met with Dean Reiss and Joseph Cammarosano, Executive VP and the Dean of Financial Affairs, to discuss the issues. Mr. Williams took our side and that was the end of me. The university could not have afforded to have left itself so vulnerable. Schroth seems to have described them well. Cammarosano was "a conservative, tough-minded economist." Both were devout Catholics "utterly devoted to Fordham" (p. 295).

I am not too sure of all the events that transpired after I left Fordham. However, my experiences at Fordham prepared me well to serve at Cornell, Ohio, Harvard, and eventually Wellesley College where I chaired our Africana department on two occasions. Fordham University at Lincoln Center is the place where I began and for that I am very thankful.

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