Allyn Lawrence is a Student Researcher for the Unearthing Towson’s History Project, a collaboration between the History Department and the Special Collections and University Archives. A senior History major, Allyn worked over the summer of 2021 to research and investigate Towson’s history of diversity. Her research focuses on the African American Studies Major that once existed within the college’s curriculum.
As the Civil Rights Movement transformed American life in the 1960s and 1970s, universities around the nation began to offer degrees in African American history. Towson State College joined this group in the early 70s. From 1973 to 1983, students at Towson could pursue a major in African American Studies. At the outset, the program, originally called the Black Studies Major, was “interdisciplinary, concentrating mainly in courses offered in the English, History, Sociology and Political Science departments” (“1973-1974”). The 1973-1974 Towson State College Undergraduate catalog provides a sketch of the steps that were necessary for one wishing to pursue a major in the program. The prerequisites included American Literature, U.S. History I and II, and Introduction to Sociology. To declare the major, students had to be a sophomore or junior with a minimum GPA of 2.0. Once students completed these introductory courses, they could then begin specializing in African American Studies, taking classes such as The History of Black America, The African World, and Blacks in America: Myths and Realities.
How the Program Came to Be
What were the origins of this program? Prior to the major’s inception, the college only had a concentration in Black Studies. Students could take the occasional class on Afro-American history or literature — classes that were mostly taught by white professors. Around 1970, Black faculty members and students began pushing for a Black Studies Program at Towson State College. Key in their campaign was the desire for Black professors to teach and guide a Black Studies curriculum. In 1969, Leon D. Holsey was the only Black counselor at Towson; his job was to explicitly help integrate Black students into the college. At the end of the 1969-1970 academic year, Holsey presented his “Year End” report to Dean Shaw and other administrators. In it, he condemned the History and English Departments for being opposed to a Black Studies Program. According to him, professors from these departments did not think that Black Literature and History “had any validity” within the college curriculum (Holsey 1970). Mr. Holsey received much criticism from History faculty members after his report was circulated. Many were horrified that he had painted them in such a negative light. In particular, Assistant Professor of History Karl Larew wrote to Dean Shaw and stated that “Mr. Halsey’s report demonstrates his inability (or more likely, his unwillingness) to compose a reasoned, literate document” (Larew 1970).
Nevertheless, Holsey’s efforts found the ear of TSC administrators, who began contemplating the creation of a Black Studies Program. Mary Catherine Kahl, Professor and Chairperson of the Department of History, wrote to Dean Shaw on September 24, 1970. In her memo, entitled “Mr. Holsey’s ‘Year End’ Report,” she recommended that the Dean permit the creation of a Black Studies Department, allowing Black faculty to “offer courses in African history, recruit faculty, set its own standards, admit students by its own rules and so forth.” Many History Professors were satisfied with the idea of a Black Studies curriculum, as long as the courses were taught by a separate department. A month later, Dean Shaw wrote to Black faculty, administrators, and students. In his letter, he stated:
While we do now offer some courses relating to the black experience such as the African World, Afro-American Literature, the Philosophy of East Africa, there is considerable advantage, I feel, in developing a plan that we can work toward in future years. Such questions as should we continue with the present model of offering courses in the black experience out of existing departments, should a separate black studies department be created, should there be an area concentration in black studies, etc. are questions that the committee might want to ponder (Shaw 1970).
While his memo was wordy, it is clear that Dean Shaw was asking his colleagues how they would feel about developing a Black Studies Program at TSC. Black professors and students were ready to make it work.
Changes within the College Curriculum
From the beginning, there were questions about how a small program such as this one would fit into the larger curriculum TSC offered. Who would teach the classes? How would the curriculum be developed and structured? How would a student receive a major in this field? But then, in 1971, the Towson State College Academic Council Curriculum Committee created an opening for Black Studies when they launched their Arts and Sciences Major Program. Under this program, students had the “opportunity to plan their own college programs, to follow individual interests, to experience a wide choice of courses from various departments and to prepare for certain specialized vocations” (“Arts and Sciences”). The program allowed for two new majors: The Liberal Arts and Sciences Major and the General Studies Major. If students wished to take either of these paths, they could pursue academic concentrations from a variety of fields, such as American Studies or Law Enforcement. This new program at TSC would ultimately allow for the creation of the Black Studies Major, as the program would be encompassed within the General Studies option.
Drafting and Developing
In the fall of 1972, Black faculty, administrators, and students came together to create a committee to draft and develop a structure for the program (“Proposed Desegregation Plan”). Leading the charge was Professor Johnella Butler from the English Department. Professors Richard Nzeadibe (History) and Thomas P. Knox (English) also contributed. According to Butler, the 1974 Coordinator of the Program, much of the administration was not amenable to the idea of a Black Studies Major. In one Towerlight article from September 28, 1973, an anonymous reporter stated that “Black faculty, administration and students had to work through the curriculum committee to obtain the major” (Towerlight 1973). The Academic Council Curriculum Committee was in charge of approving new programs and majors, and it did not seem like it approved of such a progressive program. Yet, the efforts of these dedicated faculty and students paid off. In 1972, the committee approved the Black Studies Major as a concentration of study under the General Studies Major (“Curriculum Handbook”).
In August of 1973, the program was renamed the African American Studies Program. For the first time that fall, students at TSC could pursue a major in African American Studies, attending classes that were taught by Black faculty.
The Existence of the Program
When the program began, only three students enrolled (Towerlight 1973). Butler attributed this to a lack of awareness about the new major — and she was right. As the program attracted more press, the major attracted more black students, and more faculty wanted to be involved. By the 1980-81 academic year, there were eight members on the program’s Advisory Committee. Professor John Gissendanner from the Department of English was now the Coordinator of the Program. Julius Chapman, Dean of Minority Affairs, and Associate Professor of Philosophy John Murungi had also joined the group (“1980-1981”). New classes for the major were continuously being approved not only for the Fall and Spring Semesters but for the Minimester as well. One such class was called Art and Culture of Ghana. In addition, a class on the Afro-American Perspective was approved by the Curriculum Committee at its January 16, 1974 meeting.
Even though the major was growing in importance, it suddenly disappeared. In the 1983-1984 Towson State University Undergraduate catalog, the Arts and Sciences Major Program is no longer listed; course catalogs after this date do not include the major either. With the end of the Arts and Sciences Major Program also came the elimination of the major in African American Studies. From 1984 onward, the class on the Afro-American Perspective was the only remnant of the major. The big question is why. Why was the African American Studies Program eliminated after only ten years? What changed at Towson that altered the curriculum?
Unfortunately, as much as I looked, the available records in the Towson Special Collections and University Archives do not yet provide an answer to these questions. I could not find any records within the Academic Council or Provost collections that explained this unfortunate occurrence. The records do, however, offer some possibilities. It seems like a number of interrelated factors played into the African American Studies Program’s demise. First, the General Studies Major was discontinued as Towson State worked to consolidate the curriculum; since African American Studies was nestled inside it, this decision imperiled the program. Meanwhile, a series of budget cuts, a lack of support from the administration, declining enrollment in the Arts and Sciences Major, and the loss of Julius Chapman, Dean of Minority Affairs — and a key force behind the program — all also seem to have contributed to its elimination.
Regardless of why the major was eliminated, Towson University should consider offering an African American Studies Major once again. We need to honor the tireless work that the Black faculty, administrators, and students put in to create the program in the 1970s. University of Maryland, College Park, Morgan State University, Georgetown University — all have an African American Studies Program. This shows that although our school has come a long way, there are still great steps we need to take to fit the times.
- “1973-1974 Towson State College Undergraduate catalog.” UA600003. Towson University Special Collections and University Archives, 55-56.
- “1980-1981 Towson State College Undergraduate catalog.” UA600003. Towson University Special Collections and University Archives, 52.
- “African-American studies major created.” Towerlight, September 28, 1973, 4.
- “Curriculum Committee Memorandum – January 16, 1974.” Box: 10, Folder 9. Academic Council records, 001-004-003. Towson University Special Collections and University Archives.
- “Curriculum Committee Memorandum – November 30, 1972.” Box: 10, Folder 9. Academic Council records, 001-004-003. Towson University Special Collections and University Archives.
- “‘Curriculum Handbook’ 4/74.” Box: 10, Folder 11. Academic Council records, 001-004-003. Towson University Special Collections and University Archives.
- Holsey, Leon D. “An Appraisal of the September 1969 to June 1970 College Year, the relations with Black Students, and My role as Integration Counselor.” Box: 32, Folder: 6. Office of the Provost records, UA-002. Towson University Special Collections and University Archives.
- Kahl, Mary Catherine. “Mr. Holsey’s ‘Year End Report’.” Box: 32, Folder: 6. Office of the Provost records, UA-002. Towson University Special Collections and University Archives.
- Larew, Karl. “Memo to Dean Shaw.” Box: 32, Folder: 6. Office of the Provost records, UA-002. Towson University Special Collections and University Archives.
- “Proposed Desegregation Plan for Towson State College – Revised Draft.” Box: 24, Folder: 9. Office of the Provost records, UA-002. Towson University Special Collections and University Archives.
- Shaw, Kenneth A. “Letter to Black Faculty, Administrators, Mr. Mills, Mr. Woodard (Members of the Black Student Union and Academic Council).” Box: 29, Folder: 7. Office of the Provost records, UA-002. Towson University Special Collections and University Archives.
- “Two Majors in the Arts and Sciences at Towson State College.” Box: 10, Folder 11. Academic Council records, 001-004-003. Towson University Special Collections and University Archives.