As some of the folks who know me IRL (in real life) know, I’m currently on a research sabbatical to continue a project that I began in partnership with then-University of Denver (DU) Assistant Prof in Curriculum & Instruction, Dr. Nicole Joseph. One aspect of her research focuses on using primary sources to surface the histories of Black women in STEM education, particularly at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). As a Black woman teaching at a PWI (Predominantly White Institution), she is also interested in the retention of Black women scholars, and has focused some of her service efforts on bringing together Black women in the academy. My research interests focus on centering the experiences of marginalized communities on historically white campuses in the historical record, and specifically in this case, surfacing the histories of individual students, faculty, and staff who identify as part of one or more of these communities. As an undergraduate in history, I was entranced by Gerda Lerner and Merry Wiesner’s feminist analysis of history, bringing in primary source analysis and individual women’s voices and stories – and I wanted to do some of that work myself.
As we’ve written about in several co-authored articles and chapters, our interests literally dovetailed during the 150th anniversary of the University of Denver in 2014, when Dr. Joseph reached out to me to ask if we could collaborate on an exhibit to highlight early African-American alumnae. We very quickly realized that there was little to no information on these women readily available and visible in the archives, so we got to work. The Sistah Network, the group for Black women in graduate programs at DU co-run by Dr. Joseph, began digging through yearbooks and student newspapers, in search of these early students. We quickly realized that there was no good way to determine who might have self-identified as Black women during the early years of the University. We landed on an imperfect initial method of cross-referencing women who, based on halftone photomechanical prints in early 1900s yearbooks, may not have identified as white, with census records that listed race and ethnicity as prescribed by that particular decennial census. Due to time restrictions, we were unable to identify these women in a sufficient amount of time to get an exhibit up during the 150th, but by this point, I could see how much work needed to be done, and I was committed – thus the sabbatical proposal.
Fast forward to 2017, and restarting this process, using this methodology, is still something I am deeply uncomfortable with, as it doesn’t allow the women to speak for themselves with any real certainty about how they identified. As Christine Hickman writes in “The Devil and the One-Drop Rule,” her detailed examination of the legal and cultural implications of hypodescent in America (i.e. the “one-drop rule”), “unlike in the modern census, the classifications were ascertained by the enumerator, they were not self-ascribed.” (1185). She follows this up with a personal example in a footnote on the same page: “In reviewing the 19th century census records for my own family, I noted that a “W” [for “White”] had been crossed out and replaced with an “M,” [for “Mulatto”] suggesting that my great, great grandparent may have gently corrected the mistaken impression of the ‘beardless boy.'” That said, we have no other records (that I’m aware of, if they’re out there, I’m all ears) that would allow for cross-referencing names of known students with self-identified race/ethnicity. So – I’m going to keep plugging along.
More as research progresses.