In the 1970s
In the 1970s, the African American Studies Committee broadened its membership and became a vehicle of change on the VCU campus. In 1972, the committee proposed and successfully instituted an Afro-American Studies Program at VCU. They designed this course of study to respond to the needs of both the lay and academic communities.
The early scholars in African American Studies focused on understanding “the Black Experience” and defined that experience as “multidimensional” in scope and capable of “transforming communities as it is transformed.”
The African American Studies Program included sociology, psychology, history, economics, and music. Its main goal was “to provide students with an interdisciplinary approach to the study of African and African American experiences.” Importantly, the program responded to the changing needs of American society. It enabled students to understand the dynamics of institutionalized racism in American life and the way this racism has been countered. Faculty proposed a set of tools of academic inquiry that students used in their analyses and papers. At the time, the program attracted students whose careers included teaching, community work, or further academic study.
The African American Studies Program taught in the 1970s included Africanism, Sociology of Racism, Black Political Thought, and Black American Writers. Many of these courses and topics have been retained in the present African American Studies curriculum. The African American Studies Program in this decade invested heavily in the community. Faculty and administrators motivated VCU students to take part in shaping society. Some of the projects included helping the Southampton Correctional Farm to institute a Black Cultural Program, assisting the Virginia State Penitentiary in structuring a course in Black Studies, and providing bibliographies in Black Studies for the OIC Program. African American Studies members also assisted the Churchill Boys’ Club in its week-long program of Black Art and Culture.
In 1971, Professor Rutledge M. Dennis was appointed the first Coordinator of the African American Studies Program. He served as Coordinator from 1972-1978. During his tenure as coordinator, the program introduced the African American Studies Essay Contest and the Afro-American Seminar Series. At this time, African American Studies appeared in the University Bulletin under “Interdisciplinary Courses.” In 1977, VCU established African American Studies as a minor degree. Plans already were underway to expand the program in to a department with a stand-alone major.
The initial minor in African American Studies was designed “to provide students with an interdisciplinary approach to the study of African and African American experiences in order to give them a command of substantive knowledge in various fields.” Faculty successfully acquainted students with the contributions of people of African descent in a variety of areas. Students gained insight into the dynamics of racism and cultural forces operative in American society.
The African American Studies Program expanded its academic network, scope, and membership in the late 1970s. Professor Chester Hedgepath, a joint appointee in the Department of English, served as Coordinator of the African American Studies Program from 1978-1983. Dr. Hedgepath introduced an opportunity for African American Studies students to visit the West Indies in 1978. This not only broadened students’ academic outlook, it also increased the profile of the program internationally. Under Dr. Hedgepeth’s leadership, African American Studies courses included the following: Introduction to African American Studies; Black American Writers; Topics in African American Studies; and Independent Study in African American Studies.