No Small Feat: A Brief History of Black Women in American Academia

By Kamilah Bush, “Ohio State Murders” Dramaturg

The first Black woman to earn a bachelor’s degree from an American institution was Mary Jane Patterson in 1862, from Oberlin College in Ohio. Since her graduation, Black women’s place in the academia has been both a story of triumph and hardship. But one thing has remained: for the majority of Black women matriculating in the United States, education has been a means of self and cultural improvement. Even with astounding barriers to access, Black women have managed to become roughly 64% of all Black people attending colleges and universities—the largest community of scholars within any racial group. In comparison, white women make up only 56% of all white students and 60% of all Hispanic students are women.

However, when Barbara Thornton-Harris arrived on the campus of Ohio State University in 1945, she was one of a very few Black women. In the Ohio State Black Alumni Society’s series called Pilgrimage of Progress, she tells the story of how she “almost didn’t get here.” When she went to visit campus in the spring before her freshman year, the dorm administrators told her that she could not live on campus that fall, because all of the rooms were already assigned to other students. Nearly 10 years earlier, Doris Weaver, another Black woman denied student housing at Ohio State, sued the institution, but the courts sided with OSU, upholding its “separate but equal” code. The difference for Barbara was that her father happened to know John W. Bricker, the governor of Ohio at that time. She was allowed to move into Neil Hall, sharing what was meant to be a four person suite with five other Black women.

Thornton-Harris graduated in 1949, the same year that playwright Adrienne Kennedy arrived at Ohio State University. This was five years before the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education case, which, in 1954, reversed the previous “Separate but Equal” decision. This was a major step in access for Black students in all levels of education. Though this ended de jure discrimination, it by no means put a curb on the building of new barriers to access. For example, in 1955, officials at the University of Texas adopted admission policies which specifically attempted to exclude Black students. First, there was an attempt to require any Black applicants to first attend Prairie View A&M or Texas Southern University, both Black schools, for a year before being admitted to UT. Then, came testing. While UT previously had an open admissions policy, it began requiring a certain score on standardized tests, ensuring that about 74% of its Black applicants would be barred. Many universities had begun to adopt the SAT as a requirement for admission, but for schools like UT, it was a specific tool to keep their campuses white.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have long been a response to the exclusion of Black students in higher education. The first HBCU, now known as Cheyney University, was established in 1837 in Pennsylvania. Spelman College in Atlanta was the first Black women’s college, established in 1881. Since then, 107 HBCUs have been the educational home to Black scholars. These institutions have not only served as bastions of education, but they have also been the center of change and advancement for Black people in America. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born from the sit-in movement started at North Carolina A&T State in Greensboro, NC. And though the events of February 1, 1960 are often attributed solely to the “Greensboro Four”—the four male students from NC A&T—much of the planning, strategy and subsequent sit-ins were led by the women of nearby Bennett College, an all Black women’s college. 

Whether Black women have attended HBCUs or, like Barbara Thornton-Harris and Adrienne Kennedy, spent their college years in predominantly white institutions, they have managed to become leaders in higher education. This is no small feat considering the history of legal and extralegal attempts to exclude them from academia. This is illustrated by the fact that even in 1950, Black women’s college attendance had doubled from the previous decade—a number which continued to rise well into the 1980s. Thorton-Harris attributed her ability to persevere through discrimination, isolation and opposition to one simple thing: “No matter how bad a situation looks, it can always be fixed. We [the Black students at OSU] were good fixers.” 

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