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The higher education of black women in the contemporary South.

The collegiate experience of African-American women in the contemporary South can be understood only in the context of regional history. Educational statistics and surveys of Southerners reveal the persistence of racial, regional, and gender differences in student attitudes and behaviors. Southern black women's choices of academic fields and educational institutions, their relationships with their professors and classmates, and their goals and achievements inside and outside the academy continue to be shaped by conceptions of gender and race derived from the ideology of the antebellum plantation. Because slave-holders believed that the education of blacks would foment rebellion, free persons of color had to leave the region to attend college.(1) The end of slavery created new educational opportunities for black youth, but there was considerable debate among educators about the nature and purpose of black higher education. Few thought that blacks and whites should be educated together, and many wanted blacks to receive an industrial rather than a liberal education.(2)

For African-American women, antebellum gender stereotypes compounded postbellum racial biases. Many of the personality traits ascribed to black women in the early twentieth century originated in the complex relationships of the nineteenth-century plantation. Black women - like like black men - were considered docile, indolent, and ignorant. Like white women, they were supposed to sublimate their needs and wants to those of men. Like white women and black men, they were expected to serve their lord and master. Unlike white women, black women did not receive the protection of the pedestal; instead, they were blamed for the sexual liaisons of the slave quarters. The consequence of such antebellum stereotyping was a denigration of black women's intellectual and moral faculties.

The academic offerings provided black women in the postbellum South reflected these gender and racial prejudices. Black women were given a "moral" and "vocational" education designed to develop virtuous women" who would as mothers and teachers "uplift" the race. Although this racial and gender stereotyping limited the educational opportunities and professional horizons of black women, it also inspired them to become teachers and social workers. As historian Jeanne Noble concluded in her study of "The Higher Education of Black Women in the Twentieth Century," black women students consistently exhibited a greater "sense of mission" and a greater concern for the well-being of society than either black men or white women.(3)

In the last two decades, gender, racial, and regional differences in higher education seem to have lessened considerably. Today, Southern women, black and white, earn more associate, bachelor's, and master's degrees than do men, the proportion of women in the college population having increased significantly since 1960. (In 1959 Southern women comprised only 38.0 percent of the college/university population in the region; in 1987, 54.0 percent. Only two public military schools, Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel, and a handful of private colleges in the region do not grant women undergraduate degrees.) Black women now outnumber black men in all but first professional degree programs. Today also no woman can be barred from admission to a Southern college or university because of her race. Whereas African-American women at the beginning of the twentieth-century were limited by law to all-black institutions, over two-thirds of black women currently attending college are enrolled in previously all-white institutions.(4) On a regional level, educational opportunity grants and guaranteed student loan programs have made it possible for more Southerners to attend college, and standards at Southern institutions of higher education have equalled and, in some instances, surpassed those at institutions in other parts of the nation.(5)

Few black women were provided a liberal arts education at the public expense at the beginning of the twentieth century; only in recent years have Southern states assumed a greater share of fiscal responsibility for the higher education of blacks and women. In 1968, 28.0 percent of all Southern women were enrolled in private institutions; in 1987, 17.1 percent. The percentages for white and black women were almost identical. Although black Southerners today are slightly less likely to matriculate at public institutions than white Southerners (82.3 percent versus 84.0 percent), they are still more likely to attend public colleges and universities than youth in the United States as a whole (82.3 percent and 77.0 percent respectively).(6)

Southern higher education, like Southern culture, has retained many unique characteristics, however, and these continue to affect the educational experiences of black women in the region. The South still spends less on education than the nation as a whole. Even though 16.0 percent of state taxes in the South in 1986 went to finance higher education as opposed to 13.4 percent in the country as a whole, the region lags behind in per capita expenditure on higher education ($135 in the South compared to $140 in the United States). Because the economic pie remains smaller in the South - per capita personal income is only 89.0 percent of the national average - Southerners must spend proportionately more on higher education to close the gap.(7)

The educational attainment of Southern adults also trails that of other Americans. A 1991 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that the Southeast has the lowest proportion of high school and college graduates of any area of the country. Robert Cominsky, director of the Census Bureau's education branch, attributed the low Southern rankings to the region's historic inability or unwillingness to invest in education.(8)

Educational issues continue to be intricately interwoven with matters of race. Desegregation has not resulted in racial integration; most institutions of higher education in the South are nominally integrated. Minority students remain under represented in the collegiate population at large and at major public and private institutions in the region.(9)

Enrollments in South Carolina's colleges and universities are indicative of enrollment patterns throughout the South. Although African-Americans comprise 18.5 percent of students in all South Carolina institutions of higher education, they represent only 12.1 percent of the students at the University of South Carolina and only 6.2 percent at Clemson University. South Carolina State College, on the other hand, is 92.3 percent black. Discrepancies at four-year private institutions in the state are even greater. Bob Jones University has no black students, while Morris College has only one white student.(10) The editors of the Chronicle of Higher Education note significantly that South Carolina's educators "are still struggling with ways to improve the college-going rate of black citizens, which substantially trails that of whites. The issue is viewed as crucial to the state's economic health in the future because about one-third of the South Carolina population is black."(11)

Historically black colleges remain an important component of the Southern educational scene. All but two of the historically black institutions are located in the South, and they enroll over eighty-eight percent of the students who attend black colleges. The graduation rates of black Southerners are consistently higher at black institutions. Although approximately sixty-six percent of African-Americans in the region attend predominantly white institutions, fifty-one percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded to Southern blacks are from predominantly or historically black institutions.(12)

A 1992 report for Black Issues in Higher Education found that black colleges are still producing and carrying a disproportionate share of the load" of educating black students. The twelve schools in the nation which awarded the largest number of bachelor's degrees to African-American students in 1988-89 were all historically black, Southern colleges. Howard University in Washington, D.C., led the list with 744 graduates, followed by Southern University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in Louisiana with 575, Hampton University in Virginia with 539, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University with 509, and Jackson State University in Mississippi with 463.(13)

Gender restraints continue to circumscribe the academic horizons of white and black women alike. Faculty often take the comments and concerns of women students less seriously than those of men. Men are still more likely than women to hold campus leadership positions, to dominate classroom discussions, and to major in mathematics and science at coeducational institutions. Women have fewer opportunities to work as lab or field assistants or as interns. Social activities continue to reinforce traditional gender roles and to separate students along racial and sexual lines.(14)

Southern women, as women elsewhere in the nation, choose institutions with programs which they consider appropriate for their sex. Technical and military colleges and public universities with strong engineering programs attract far fewer women than men. Fewer than a quarter of the students at Florida Institute of Technology and Georgia Institute of Technology, for instance, are women. Men also outnumber women at technically oriented state universities such as Auburn, Clemson, Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, North Carolina State, Oklahoma, Tennessee Tech, Texas A & M, Arkansas, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute.(15)

Gender stereotypes also influence women's choices of majors. Business is the most common major among students at coeducational institutions in the South, but women dominate in traditional "female" fields such as education, health care, and home economics. Although the number of women in such "male" fields as engineering, mathematics, and the physical sciences has increased significantly in the last decade, most black women prefer concentrations in the humanities and the social sciences.(16)

Higher education in the South is still perceived as "different" by many Americans. Guides to the nation's colleges and universities, such as that written by Edward B. Fiske of the New York Times, characterize institutions in the region as "distinctly Southern" or "steeped in Southern traditionalism" but have no category of "distinctly Northern" or reference to "Northern traditionalism."(17)

The connotation of "Southern" in such educational commentaries is even more revealing. Fiske describes Davidson College as "a top-notch regional college for Southern WASPs ... [It] is distinctly Southern and socially traditional." He thinks that Duke University's unique blend of North and South explains how the institution "can be laid-back and high-powered at the same time." Georgia Tech, he notes, "isn't your typical laid-back Southern State U." On the other hand, he claims that the University of Virginia's "Southern, slightly aristocratic ambiance gives it a homey charm, but also a streak of anti-intellectualism and apathy." He finds students at Wofford College "conventional South Carolina types with conventional aspirations," while students at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, "can take on the best of any Yankee student body."(18) For Fiske - and other educational commentators like him - most Southern students and most Southern colleges are narrowly provincial, academically inferior, and politically and socially conservative.

Many of the students Fiske interviewed for his guide also employed regional terminology in describing their institutions, albeit more positively. One student who labeled the University of Arkansas "truly a Southern school" referred to the fact that "People smile and speak to other people whether they know them or not." Students at Furman University perceived their classmates as "an enlarged, close Southern family." To these individuals, "Southern" meant a student body which was friendly, a faculty which was approachable, and a campus that was hospitable.(19)

African-American students and traditionally black colleges are noticeably absent from descriptions of typically "Southern" schools in Fiske's guide, even though all but two of the historically black institutions are South of the Mason-Dixon Line. Promotional materials from predominantly black colleges use many of the same "Southern" descriptors as predominantly white colleges in the region, proudly pointing to the "warm, friendly atmosphere" of their campuses.(20)

The Southern woman student still tends to be characterized as white and rich. Images of the "lady" remain strong: Fiske notes that Randolph-Macon Woman's College always has "enough Southern prep school graduates to give the college what some call a |Southern-bellish' tone." He describes the "typical" Hollins College student as "white, traditional, Southern, preppie." Southern women at Duke, according to Fiske, are "very conscious of clothes and looks," while "relations between the sexes are still somewhat formal."(21)

Other remnants of the "Old South" are even less attractive. Beauty contests and other activities which treat women students as sex objects have not disappeared from the Southern college scene. The "Miss T.U. Pageant" at Tulane University in New Orleans, for example, asks contestants to provide their bust, waist, and hip measurements and to appear in swimsuit and evening gown competitions. When the student senate voted to discontinue the pageant because of its sexist nature, the student body voted overwhelmingly to reinstate the contest.(22)

Racial tensions remain on many Southern campuses, although racial incidents at universities in the Northeast and Midwest in the eighties and nineties suggest that racism is not unique to the South. Many of the conflicts at Southern colleges, however, are directly related to the region's past. Black and white students on Southern campuses have divergent views on the Confederate flag and Southern history. When a black cheerleader at "Ole Miss" refused to carry a rebel flag across the football field in the fall of 1982, student tempers flared. Blacks wanted to eliminate Confederate imagery once and for all from university symbols and threatened to burn the school yearbook with its references to the flag, Colonel Rebel, Dixie," and the Klan. Whites responded by marching to a black fraternity house, waving the stars and bars, singing Dixie," and yelling racial epithets. For many of the white students "school spirit and white supremacy were still entwined."(23)

Furthermore, at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, letters to the editor of the student newspaper poured in after an African-American student voiced his opposition to the display of the Confederate flag in college fraternity houses and dormitories. White students claimed that the flag was "just tradition" and part of the "Southern heritage," whereas black students perceived it as a symbol of "oppression." White Northerners said it made them feel unwelcome.(24) And Fiske's description of Vanderbilt as a school where "race relations are sometimes tense" and where "minorities are |tolerated but not encouraged .... ' "25 rings true for many other Southern colleges as well. Black and white students may attend the same institutions, but their academic and social lives are often quite distinct.

Black college women suffer both racial and sexual harassment on white campuses. Delta Kappa Epsilon Fraternity at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University was banned from the campus for four years because of an initiation assignment which required white pledges to be photographed kissing black women. Nor was this an isolated incident. A study of Black Women in Academe sponsored by the Project on the Status and Education of Women noted that it is not unusual for white fraternities and sororities to "sponsor events that are offensive to Black women students: fraternity men have dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan, staged mock hangings, or hired Black strippers."(26)

Sexism and racism follow African-American women into the classroom. Many professors tend to see blacks as representatives of their race rather than as individuals and to ignore them unless they want to know "what blacks think" on a certain subject. Some faculty seem surprised when African-American women volunteer the "correct" answer. One woman described the University of Virginia as "a white, traditional, male-oriented society that expects very little of women." And, she noted significantly, "it expects even less of Black women like me."(27)

The chilly campus climate affects black women's academic performance. Studies of African-American students conducted in the 1970s and 1980s revealed that black women on white campuses had lower persistence rates, lower grades, lower graduate enrollments, and lower self-esteem than their counterparts on black campuses, despite the fact that they had better academic backgrounds and a higher socio-economic status than women attending black institutions.(28)

Even at predominantly black colleges, African-American men tend to do better than African-American women. Jacqueline Fleming, a psychologist who studied student intellectual development in various academic settings, found that African-American women on black coeducational campuses often compromised "their social assertiveness" and exhibited "stereotyped passive ways of gaining recognition and control." They were less likely to speak out in class or to assume leadership positions in campus organizations. Even women with excellent academic records tended to underestimate their academic abilities and downplay their professional aspirations. Fleming traced such self-degradation to the traditional view "that it is all right [for a woman] to be intelligent, so long as no practical use is made of that intelligence."(29)

Black women did best academically at black private colleges and experienced the fewest gender biases and racial barriers at the black women's colleges (Spelman in Atlanta, Georgia, and Bennett in Greensboro, North Carolina). The problems black women faced at predominantly white schools tended to be social rather than academic. They often felt isolated from other students and excluded from the extracurricular life of the campus.(30)

National surveys of college students further reveal the ways in which regional, racial, and gender factors affect student values and behaviors. The survey of first-year students conducted annually since 1966 by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) under the auspices of the American Council on Education and the University of California at Los Angeles repeatedly shows significant differences between men and women, blacks and whites, Northerners and Southerners on many political, economic, and social issues.(31)

Survey responses from women at predominantly black institutions in the region are especially revealing. Black college women seem more concerned with traditional expectations of ladylike behavior than white college women. Women entering black colleges are far less likely to smoke cigarettes or to drink alcohol than Northern or Southern white women. More than half consider themselves born-again Christians, and some ninety-three percent attend religious services. Almost all feel that their families have high aspirations for them. Although they have a strong drive to achieve, African-American women have less confidence in their academic ability than white women and white and black men. They value financial success and a good job more highly than white men and women do, but they also have a strong sense of racial and social consciousness.(32)

Most black women assume that a college education will facilitate their assimilation into the American mainstream. They hope that college will provide them with the skills and knowledge to lead a full and productive life. Most students do not want their options to be limited by plantation myths of race, gender, or class. Yet "yesterday's" image of the ideal Southern woman remains remarkably resilient. Women from wealthier families are far more like to attend college than those from poorer backgrounds. Private colleges also tend to attract more women from the higher socio-economic strata. Proportionately more whites attend college than blacks.(33)

Recent statistics suggest that higher education may no longer be perceived as a panacea for racial and gender inequities. The number of blacks earning bachelor's and master's degrees in the region has declined since the late 1970s. Although black women earn more Ph.D.'s than black men, the proportion of doctorates awarded to blacks remains low. Of the 36,027 Ph.D.'s granted by American institutions in 1990, only 508 or 1.4 percent went to black women (black men earned 320 or .8 percent of the degrees). Not a single black student earned a Ph.D. in mathematics, geology, ecology, biophysics, philosophy, or oceanography. And despite civil rights legislation, black students are far less likely to receive research and teaching assistantships than white or foreign students. White and black women alike are underrepresented in fields with relatively high status and pay.(34)

The higher education of black women continues to be influenced by regional economic, social, political, and cultural developments. Despite the increased population mobility of the post-world War II era, the vast majority of Americans still attend a regional college or university. Nationwide, eighty-one percent of students attend an in-state college, and Southern black women are no exception to this pattern.(35) Since regional differences in attitudes, values, and behavior appear likely to survive into the twenty-first century, the educational experiences of black women in the South will almost certainly remain distinctive.

The Southern fascination with the past has been both a blessing and a curse. Plantation stereotypes of gender and race have made it difficult for black women to assert themselves and to challenge the status quo. Traditional concepts of womanhood have discouraged independent thought and action and encouraged women to look outward, not inward, for solutions to their problems. The ghosts of rural poverty and racism still haunt the region, depressing educational standards and hindering social integration.

But the Southern consciousness of a distinctive history has its educational advantages as well. The paternalistic concern for the "special" needs of women and blacks which characterized Southern college and universities for much of the last century gave students the confidence and knowledge to confront the world outside the college home. The emphasis on family and community inspired graduates to look beyond individual success and to work for changes that would create a better life for others. The focus of black colleges on African-American culture and on "race uplift" gave students a sense of pride and purpose.

In a study of black students on white campuses, Nesha Haniff emphasized the need for African-Americans to become "bi-cultural" - to learn and value both the Eurocentric culture of the school and the Afrocentric culture of the home. Haniff found that too often "African Americans accept integration with a sense that their separateness, their difference is inferior and must be eschewed."(36)

The bicultural focus of Southern culture has much to offer black women in the region. As a promotional brochure for Johnson C. Smith University explains: "much like the Roman god, Janus, we have two faces. The first, which looks ever forward, suggests our commitment to provide an exciting, relevant and |futures oriented' curriculum and program ... our other face, which looks backwards, celebrates the unique heritage about which we are so very proud ... the immense contributions which have been made by people of African descent."(37)

At a time when educators struggle to balance the desire for a national culture with the recognition of the diversity of the American past, the Southern experience of "two-ness" may help create a truly multicultural society which celebrates its differences as well as its commonalities. The past may indeed provide a bright future for the higher education of black women in the South.

(1) Elizabeth L. Ihle, Black Women's Academic Education in the South, Modules III and IV, History of black Women's Education in the South, 1865-Present (Washington, D. C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1986). (2) Jane E. Smith Browning and John B. Williams, "History and Goals of Black Institutions of Higher Learning," in Black Colleges in America: Challenge, Development, Survival, ed. Charles V. Willie and Ronald R. Edmonds (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), p. 69. (3) Jeanne Noble, "The Higher Education of Black Women in the Twentieth Century," in Women and Higher Education in American History: Essays from the Mount Holyoke College Sesquicentennial Symposia, ed. John Mack Faragher and Florence Howe (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988), pp. 87-92. (4) Center for Education Statistics, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990 (Washington, D. C.: U. S. Department of Commerce, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990); Joseph L. Marks, SREB Fact Book on Higher Education 1988 (Atlanta: Southern Regional Educational Board, 1988), pp. 48-49. (5) Duke University, Rice University, Vanderbilt University, the University of Virginia, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were listed among U.S. News & World Report's "Top 25 National Universities" in 1992. See U.S. News & World Report, America's Best Colleges 1992 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. News & World Report, 1991), p. 13. (6) Center for Education Statistics, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1970, 1990; Marks, SREB Fact Book, 24, 2-3; The Editors of the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Almanac of Higher Education, 1989-90 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 4. (7) Marks, SREB Fact Book, pp. 5, 2. (8) John Hassell, "Southeast Trails Nation in Number ot Graduates," Post & Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), November 27, 1991. (9) See reports for individual Southern states in The Almanac of Higher Education 1989-90. (10) "Opening Fall Enrollments of South Carolina Colleges and Universities by Race: Fall 1989," South Carolina Statistical Abstract 1991 (Columbia:South Carolina Division of Research and Statistical Services, 1991), p. 135. (11) "South Carolina," in The Almanac of Higher Education 1989-90, p. 213. (12) Marks, SREB Fact Book, pp. ii, 40, 48. (13) "Report: Black Colleges Carry a Heavy Load," The Post and Courier (Chaarleston, South Carolina), May 5, 1992. (14) Roberta M. Hall and Bernice Sandler, Out of the Classroom: A Chilly Campus Climate for Women (Washington, D.C.: Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, 1984). (15) "Directory of Colleges and Universities," America's Best Colleges 1992, pp. 75-196. (16) National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 1990 (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Department of Education, 1990); Marks, SREB Fact Book, pp. 56-57. (17) "Edward B. Fiske, The Fiske Guide to Colleges 1992 (New York: Time Books, division of Random House, 1991). (18) Fiske, pp. 250, 283, 329, 809, 867, 510. (19) Fiske, pp. 42, 319. (20) "Talladega College, An Education of Distinction," college brochure, 1990; "Discover Bennett," a brochure put out by the Admissions Office of Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, tells prospective students that "You too can be part of a family that graduates leaders to shape our history." See also promotional materials from Dillard University in New Orleans, Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, and Howard University in Washington, D.C., for other examples of familial imagery. (21) Fiske, pp. 624, 388, 284, 286. (22) Project on the Status and Education of Women, "Ban on Beauty Pageant Overridden by Student Vote," On Campus with Women, 19 (Spring 1990), 2. (23) Kevin Pierce Thornton, "Symbolism at Ole Miss and the Crisis of Southern Identity," South Atlantic Quarterly, 86 (Summer 1987), 266-267. (24) Letters to the Editor, Cougar Pause, student newspaper of the College of Charleston, October 17, 1991. (25) Fiske, p. 794. (26) Project on the Status and Education of Women, "Fraternity Banned for Racial/Sexual Hazing," On Campus with Women, 19 (Spring 1990), 2; Yolanda T. Moses, Black Women in Academe: Issues and Strategies (Washington, D.C.: Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, August 1989), p. 7. (27) Quoted in Moses, p. 2 (28) College in Black and White: African American Students in Predominantly White and in Historically Black Public Universities, ed. Walter R. Allen, Edgar G. Epps, Nesha Z. Haniff (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1991), p. 4 (29) Jacqueline Fleming, Blacks in College (San Francisco and London:Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1985), pp. 145-148, 154. (30) Fleming, pp. 145-148; Moses, p. 7. (31) Alexander W. Astin, William S. Korn, Ellyne R. Berz, The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 1989 (Los Angeles, California:Cooperative Institutional Research Program, Higher Education Research Institute, University of California, 1990). (32) "Weighted National Norms for All Women, Fall 1989," in Astin, et al., pp. 27-44. (33) National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 1990. (34) Marks, SREB Fact Book, p. 49; Anthony DePalma, "As Black Ph.D.'s Taper Off, Aid to Foreigners Is Assailed," New York Times, April 21, 1992; Edgar G. Epps and Anne S. Pruitt, In Pursuit of Equality in Higher Education, ed. Anne S. Pruitt (New York: General Hall, Inc., 1987), introduction. (35) National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 1990. (36) Nesha Haniff, "Epilogue," College in Black and White, p. 251. (37) Proud Heritage - An Exceptional Future, Johnson C. Smith Universit, college brochure, p. 6.
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Title Annotation:Special Issue: The South in Transition
Author:McCandless, Amy Thompson
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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