by Algeania Marie Warren Freeman
African American women have marked their calendars for a historic celebration on September 19, 2023, as Dr. Claudine Gay is inaugurated as the thirtieth and first African American woman president of Harvard University, America’s oldest and most prestigious institution of higher education. Her inauguration is beyond significant because it has taken 404 years for African American women to reach this pinnacle. For this most noteworthy achievement to be realized, many sacrifices, hardships, and deferred dreams of other African American women trailblazers and heroines in the academy had to occur.
Though this event must be celebrated, African American women are still cognizant that much work for achieving parity and equality must be performed. At a time when women of color hold 5 percent of the positions as presidents and chancellors of 3,982 collegiate institutions and Black women make up only 2 percent of the presidents of Research 1 institutions of higher education, it is critical that the historical journey of African American women be captured and preserved as a strategy for inspiring, motivating, and preparing other women and girls that they too one day can become chief executive officers as well as break even more glass ceilings.
The Colonial Age of Advancement
The arduous journey for African American women assuming key leadership positions began in 1619; however, it was not until the 1700s that we began to see women like Phillis Wheatley being educated. Phillis Wheatley was brought to America at the age of 8 as a slave, and she was taught to read, write, as well as allowed to study history and literature. She used her education to inspire her people by writing poems and articles that spoke to the yearning to be free.
On September 18, 1850, Lucy Stanton became the first African American woman to earn a college degree from Oberlin Collegiate Institute, now called Oberlin College. Oberlin played a pivotal role in educating Black women leaders. Born a slave in 1836, Fannie Jackson Coppin was the first Black woman selected to serve as a pupil-teacher at Oberlin College after earning her degree from Oberlin. Coppin State University in Baltimore is named in her honor. Sarah Emlen Cresson in concert with her husband in 1853 became the first African American woman founder of a college now known as Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. With the mission to educate former slaves, Edmonia Highgate, a fundraiser for the Freedman’s Association and the American Missionary Society, helped to secure funding for the establishment of Atlanta University, Dilliard University, Talladega College, and Howard University. In 1885, Hallie Quinn Brown, a graduate of Wilberforce University and significant Harlem Renaissance influencer, became the first woman dean at Allen University, and she also served as a dean at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.
Turn of the Century: The Black Renaissance
Black women’s educational activism seemed to pick up steam with the turn of the century. It was a period of the birthing of new cultural, social, and justice movements, and education became known as an empowerment tool to newly freed Black people. This was a period that encouraged educational scholarship as a strategy for uplifting a people. It was from this aim to chart a new course of action that Lucy Diggs Stowe, a graduate of Howard University in 1908 and with a master’s degree from Columbia in 1915, emerged in 1922 to become the first woman appointed as the College Dean of Women at Howard University. Stowe was an educational giant in that she became the founder of the National Association of College Women and one of the founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and the National Council of Negro Women. The mission of the National Association of College Women was to “seek to raise the standards in colleges for Black American women, develop female faculty members, and secure scholarships.” Nannie Helen Burroughs must also be recognized for becoming the founder and President of the National Training School for Women and Girls in 1909.
It was 217 years from being brought to America in chains before the first Black woman was appointed president of a college. With the rip-roaring 1920s came a GOAT (Greatest of All Time) in pursuit of opening doors and educating her people. Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, one of 17 children, was born into poverty and performed farm work picking cotton in Maysville, South Carolina. It took the hot sun burning her back and recognizing that the Jim Crow laws of the South were so harsh on her and her people that she had to help find a way to lead her people to higher ground. In 1904, Dr. Bethune became the second African American woman founder of a college. In 1926, Dr. Bethune was named the first African American woman president of a college or university in America. While serving as the president of what is now Bethune-Cookman University, Dr. Bethune with her faith in God had to stand her ground and confront bravely the Klu Klux Klan in the dark of the night to keep them from lynching, burning, and destroying her institution. This inspirational leader served as the advisor to four American presidents. She was also the founder of the National Council of Negro Women.
The second African American woman to become a president of an institution of higher education was Dr. Anna Julia Cooper who was born a slave in Raleigh, North Carolina. She was a feminist, civil rights advocate, and a woman ahead of her time. Dr. Cooper was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. degree in history and romance languages from the University of Paris-Sorbonne. She began her educational studies at St. Augustine’s Normal School, and she later earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics from Oberlin College. While studying at Oberlin, Dr. Cooper had to fight to be allowed to attend “Men’s Classes.” In 1929 at the age of 72, Dr. Cooper was appointed president of Frelinghuysen University, a forgotten private HBCU in Washington, D.C., where she led the institution in providing adult education and social services. Dr. Anna Cooper was known as one of the first authors and historians of Black feminist thought as she wrote a book entitled, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South.
The third African American woman to become a college president was Mary Elizabeth Branch who was born in Virginia to former slaves. In 1930, Ms. Branch became the president of Tillotson College, the first woman president of an accredited institution in Texas. She transformed Tillotson from a junior college to a four-year accredited institution.
The Civil Rights Era and the Transition
It would be 30 years from the first Black woman being appointed a president of a college before Dr. Willa Player was appointed to serve as the first African American woman president of Bennett College, a women’s college. The 1960s was an educational activism era. The KKK was murdering and lynching people for declaring that they wanted “separate and unequal” policies to be abolished. It was in Greensboro, North Carolina, where students demonstrated and held sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Dr. Willa Player became a heroine during this period in that she played a pivotal role in training and supporting the students and faculty as they demanded their rights. When no one else in the area would house Dr. Martin Luther King for the night’s civil rights speaking engagement, Dr. Player provided a place for him to stay. She is most known for her words spoken at the time, “We don’t teach our students what to think. We teach them how to think. If I have to give exams in jail, that’s what I’ll do.”
It was another 10 years before another woman would be appointed as a chief executive officer in the academy. In 1976, Mary Frances Berry became the first African American woman chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder. Previously, she had served as the provost of the College of Behavioral and Social Science at the University of Maryland, College Park. Chancellor Berry also served as the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania. She distinguished herself by serving as the Chair of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
Coming of Age: Black Women Academic CEOs 1980 to 2000
It took another 10 years before another African American woman would be appointed as a president in an age that symbolized hope and promise, but people were still yearning for parity and equality. Dr. Niara Sudarkasa became the first woman and the eleventh president of Lincoln University in 1986, an institution co-founded by a woman. Prior to her selection out of 103 applicants, Dr. Sudarkasa served as an associate vice president of academic affairs and professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
The glass ceiling was shattered in 1987 when Johnnetta Betsch Cole became the seventh and first African American woman president of Spelman College. Dr. Cole solidified her place in history as she went on to serve as the president of Bennett College and was the director of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian. Dr. Gloria Randle Scott was selected in 1987 as the second African American woman and the eleventh President of Bennett College, and she served as the national president of the Girl Scouts.
The following women also broke the glass ceiling and became educational trailblazers in addition to their seven predecessors as they became the first African American women to serve as presidents of higher education institutions 381 years after their ancestors were brought to America in chains and upon whose GOAT shoulders President Claudine Gay now stands:
- Dr. Sebetha Jenkins – Jarvis Christian College (1991)
- Dr. Belle Wheelan – Central Virginia Community College (1992)
- Dr. Shirley A.R. Lewis – Paine College (1994)
- Dr. Dorothy Yancy – Johnson C. Smith University (1994)
- Dr. Ruth Simmons – Smith College (1995)
- Dr. Marie McDemmond – Norfolk State University (1995)
- Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed – Philander Smith College (1998)
- Dr. Glenda Price – Marygrove College (1998)
- Dr. Diane Broardley Suber – Saint Augustine’s College (1999)
- Dr. Algeania Marie Warren Freeman – Livingstone College (2000)