History of Africana Studies at UMBC

The Department of Africana Studies (AFST) is one of the oldest and interdisciplinary academic programs within the liberal arts education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). It offers B.A. Standard Major and a concentration in Community Involvement Studies options; and Minor in Africana Studies. The discussions that led to the establishment of the department of African American Studies at UMBC began in 1970 when following the emergence of Black Studies programs at a few predominantly white institutions around the country, particularly in the northern part of California, faculty members and students came together and successful convinced the UMBC authorities to establish similar program on campus. Convinced by argument presented on the intellectual and scholarly merits of such a program, the university administration established by the end of 1971 the African American Studies program and hired Dr. Elechukwu Njaka to serve as its director. Largely due to the political climate of the early 1970s, the University of Maryland Board of Regents realized the value of establishing an autonomous Black Studies program and consequently gave the new program’s director de facto powers to serve as a Divisional Dean who reported directly to the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.

A fully functional African American Studies B. A. degree program began in the 1972-1973 academic year with the admission of the first batch of students. In June 1975, the department graduated its first class of majors. Dr. Daphne D. Harrison, who joined the department in 1972, replaced Dr. Njaka as Acting Director. Dr. Harrison served as Acting Director throughout the 1974-75 academic year while a search was conducted for a permanent Director. Consequently, Dr. Willie B. Lamousé-Smith, who was a Professor of Sociology and Associate Director of the Program of Eastern African Studies in the Maxwell Graduate School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, was hired as the director of the program in 1975.

In the late 1970s, UMBC re-organized its academic structure, replacing its divisional system with departmental programs, which were all housed within the College of Arts and Sciences. As a result, African American Studies lost its Divisional status and became one of the twenty-three (23, now more than 40) academic departments or programs headed by a department chair or program director. These academic departments and programs are housed in three colleges: College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CAHSS); College of Engineering and Information Technology; and College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences. The Department of African American Studies (later, Africana Studies) is one of the twenty-six (26) such academic programs in CAHSS. With the developments in the field of Black Studies in the 1990s, the African American Studies department sought and was granted the permission to change its name to Africana Studies in 1997. The new name aptly reflected the curriculum and educational goals of the department, namely, to provide its students with knowledge of the cultures and experiences of African peoples throughout Africa and its Diaspora, not just in the United States.

Dr. Lamousé-Smith became the substantive chair of the department in 1977 following the re-organization of the university’s academic structure; and served till 1980. During this time, the Department revamped its curriculum and added many new courses to reflect its coverage of three areas of the Diaspora: Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. It also established several special programs and activities. Included among these were the W. E. B. Du Bois Distinguished Lecture Series, a Black History Month Program, an Annual Health Conference and Health Fair, a Model Organization for African Unity, an Annual Spring Theatre Workshop Production, and a Summer Tutorial Enrichment Project for inner-city elementary students. The Department continued to sponsor many of these activities during the decades of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s under the leadership of Dr. Daphne Harrison (1980-1992); Dr. Thomas Robinson, Jr. (1992-1994; 2000-2013); Dr. Acklyn Lynch (1994-1997); and Dr. Lamousé-Smith (1997-2000). With MHEC approval in 1988-1989, the Department began a joint Master’s degree program in Comparative Literature with Morgan State University in 1989-1990. Unfortunately, due to the severe budget cuts that affected USM campuses and led to the closure of certain programs, the Department lost its joint masters degree program with the last cohort of students graduating in 1996.

Since the 2010s, under Dr. Tyson King-Meadows (2013-2016) and Dr. Gloria Chuku (2016-), the department has modified the Du Bois Annual Lecture to become a full day event with more opportunities for our guest speakers to engage AFST students and faculty, the senior administration, and prospective freshmen before the actual lecture. In collaboration with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and Orientation, it has included outreach opportunities as a regular feature of the Du Bois Lecture through a Dessert Reception for targeted rising and prospective students and their families. In order to strengthen applied learning experience opportunities inside and outside the classroom through robust civic and community engagement, internships and undergraduate research, the department has since the past seven years sponsored and led a number of UMBC students from different departments to the Model African Union (MAU) summits in Washington, DC. MAU is a simulation of the proceedings of the African Union heads of state and their ministers, which provides UMBC students a unique opportunity to study contemporary Africa and the African Union; serve as ambassadors of African countries; visit the embassy offices of those countries in Washington, DC and be briefed by their ambassadors; and socialize and build networks with students from other parts of the country, Africa, Canada, and South Korea. UMBC delegates have won awards during MAU summits. For the UMBC students who had attended any of the MAU summits, it has remained one of the most satisfying educational experiences that they have had.

The department has also launched new initiatives since the 2010s. One of such initiatives is the Taste of Africa, a university-wide event commemorating Black History Month and African Cultural Heritage through cuisine and culinary traditions. The 2017 and 2018 Taste of Africa events were highly successful in fostering a sense of community among our students and the broader African diaspora campus community. They served as an avenue for our students to interact with our alumni, who were invited to share their experiences as AFST students and their journeys to their respective careers. COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the 2019 Taste of Africa event, but the Department plans to resume its celebration in 2023. In 2018, the department organized a successful international conference on “Women and the Nigeria-Biafra War” that brought scholars and activists across the globe to the campus. The department is organizing its second international conference on “African Women, Civil Wars, and Peacebuilding” in May 2023.

The Africana Studies department has a strong commitment to the university’s General Education Program. It has collaboratively worked with the Department of Education to offer courses that serve the needs of students completing certificates in elementary and secondary education. Additionally, the Africana Studies department is a core participating department in the Language, Literacy, and Culture (LLC) Doctoral Program at UMBC. Through the LLC program, AFST faculty engage in graduate education by serving on the governing body of the program, offering courses within its curriculum, serving as affiliate faculty, speaking in LLC classes, mentoring its students, and serving on its dissertation committees. Africana Studies faculty members have also been involved in the English department Master’s degree program through course offerings and serving on thesis committees. They have served on the governing bodies of the Gender, Women’s + Sexuality Studies department and the Global Studies program.

Because of its outreach to students through the above-mentioned programs and activities and its dedicated work with students, the Department has routinely garnered special recognition and thanks from students and others. For example, in 1976, the Department received a special notice from UMBC’s Middle States Universities Accreditation Team which noted: “Several members of the team would like to single out and congratulate the individuals involved and the institution on the leadership, the scholarly interests, the integrity and the distinction of the African American Studies Program. Above all for its care for its students.” Similarly, in 1994, the Alumni and Friends of UMBC presented the Department with an award for its “Mentoring and Support of African American Students.” And, in 1997, on the occasion of the Department’s 25th anniversary, the Maryland Governor’s Office for Minority Affairs cited the Department, on behalf of the citizens of the State, for its “significant contribution … to higher education as a result of the commitment demonstrated by all associated with [the] Department [and acknowledged] great respect, admiration and gratitude for the historical legacy [of the Department] which continues to enrich the lives and experiences of [Maryland] citizens.” It was during its 25th anniversary celebration that the Department announced the change of name from African American Studies to Africana Studies.

Since the 2000s, the Department once again, has received special recognition for its meritorious work with students. In this instance, two former faculty members were singled out for their tireless efforts in helping to enlighten and empower UMBC students to become community leaders. For such work, the UMBC Alumni Association as a part of its 2007 Legends of Excellence Awards cited both Dr. Daphne D. Harrison (retired 1999) and Dr. Acklyn R. Lynch (retired 2003) for their “extraordinary individual contributions [to] the lives of UMBC’s African-American and Latino students over the past 40 years.” In its 2017 award ceremonies, the UMBC Alumni Association conferred its Legends of Excellence Awards to Dr. Willie Lamousé-Smith (retired 2007) “in acknowledgement of [his] extraordinary contribution in the lives of African-American and Latino students during [his] tenure at UMBC.” In 2017, Dr. Gloria Chuku received the prestigious Ali Mazrui Award for Scholarship and Research Excellence, an international award that recognizes a pre-eminent scholar of African studies for their research and scholarly achievement. Dr. Chuku was the first woman to receive this award. In 2019, Dr. Thomas Robinson, Jr. received a service award from the UMBC Black Faculty Committee for his dedicated leadership having served as the chair of the Group from 2007 to 2013. The same year, the UMBC McNair Program renamed its lecture series as Hill-Robinson McNair Lecture Series, after Dr. Robinson and Cynthia Hill, the Program’s former Director, because of their long service to it. Dr. Robinson has taught a research methodology course for the Program since its inception at UMBC in 1990. In 2020, Dr. Chuku was appointed the Lipitz Professor of the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences for Academic Year 2020-2021. The Lipitz Professorship was created by Roger Lipitz and the Lipitz Family Foundation to “recognize and support innovative teaching and research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.” Dr. Scott Casper, the Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the time, wrote: “Because you [Dr. Chuku] have exemplified these attributes throughout your career at UMBC, it is a true pleasure that you will join our distinguished list of Lipitz Professors …Your scholarship, teaching, and contributions to your department and profession have brought great honor to the College and the University, and I am delighted that we can honor you in this way.” Dr. Chuku was the first Black faculty member to receive the award.

The above-named Africana Studies leaders and others—faculty and staff members—are largely responsible for the Department’s achievements in carrying forth its 50-year educational mission of service to UMBC, the greater Baltimore community, the state of Maryland, and beyond.