The Politics of Particularism: HBCUs, Spelman College, and the Struggle to Educate Black Women in Science, 1950-1997

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Scriven, Olivia A.
Pearson, Willie
Usselman, Steven W.
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Since the close of WWII, higher education has been central to the growth of U.S. science, but the role of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)has been under-explored within this narrative. The nation s 105 HBCUs constitute less than one percent of the U.S. higher education community, but consistently have served as a major conduit for the production of African Americans in the sciences, technology, mathematics and engineering. National Science Foundation data reflect an average 29 percent share for the period 1994-2001. The output is even more striking when examined by degrees awarded in disciplinary clusters 50 percent in the agricultural sciences, 45 percent in the physical sciences and mathematics, and 42 percent in the biological sciences. This research explores the role of HBCUs in educating African Americans in science from the boosterism period shortly following World War II, through affirmative action legislation of the 1960s and 1970s, and concluding with current federal policies. A particular analysis is undertaken of Spelman College, a private liberal arts college founded by New England missionaries in the South during the late 19th century as a seminary for former slave women and girls. Spelman presents a unique case to analyze the particularistic characteristics of race, gender and institutional setting within the context of a so-called normative structure of science. Over a 25-year period, Spelman was able to rise beyond the structural limitations of its position as a Black college, a women's college, and a southern college to become one of the single most productive undergraduate institution for African American women earning the baccalaureate degree in science. What new perspectives might the Spelman story specifically and the history of HBCUs generally offer about the history of U.S. science, the notion that careers be open to talent, and current public policy discourse regarding efforts to increase the participation of under-represented racial minorities and women in science, engineering and mathematics? My thesis is that it is the politics of particularlism, not an ideal of universalism, that has fundamentally determined who participates in science and has had a significant impact on HBCUs. Despite these constraints, the contributions that these institutions have made to the U.S. scientific workforce have been enormous.
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