Department History

History of the Department

The Department of African American Studies wasn't officially established until 1972, but like many other such departments around the country, it owes its origins to black student protest of the late 1960s. A sit-in at the university's business office in May 1968 led to a round of negotiations that produced a commitment by the administration to increase attention to Black history and literature in the curriculum. At student urging, the university hired as visiting professors Lerone Bennett, the highly regarded historian and senior editor at Ebony magazine, and C.L.R. James, the legendary anti-colonial activist, independent scholar and Marxist theorist. When the department began, Lerone Bennett served briefly as the first chair.

Many prominent scholars, artists and writers taught in the department during its first decade and beyond. Two themes in the department's early history deserve emphasis. First, in contrast to the widely held notion that early Black Studies programs focused exclusively on the United States, Northwestern's department was internationally oriented from its inception. There was attention to the African Diaspora in both course offerings and extracurricular programming. Jan Carew, who became department chair in 1973, hailed from Guyana and insisted upon a diasporic approach to Black studies. He helped to raise funds for students to travel abroad in order to engage in transnational learning. Jamaica-born Robert Hill was among the first cohort of faculty hires. A scholar of Marcus Garvey and the Garvey movement, Hill brought an international awareness to the study of Black history. Another important feature of the department's early history was the prominence of creative writers on the faculty. The Black arts movement exerted a strong influence on the creation of Black studies departments and Northwestern was no exception. The highly acclaimed poet Mari Evans was among the first cohort of faculty, and the prominent Chicago novelists Cyrus Colter and Leon Forrest joined the faculty in subsequent years.