A History of Africana Studies at Rutgers University - New Brunswick
by Dr. Leonard L. Bethel
After the death of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, reactions on the campus of Rutgers University, New Brunswick , New Jersey were ignited by Black students, and a few concerned administrators. Dr. Milton Schwebel, Dean of the Graduate School of Education, spearheaded the establishment of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Professorship, in which the highly respected Black educator and clergyman, Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor became its first Chair. Dr. Proctor initiated, in the Graduate School of Education, the first program to bring Black educators from predominantly Black colleges in the South to earn doctorates. He was an advisor to Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and was the first Peace Corp Director to Nigeria, West Africa . The youngest college president in the country at age 29 years, Proctor affected the lives of many African Americans. As a seminary student at Crozier in Chester, Pennsylvania, he was assigned as Advisor to Martin Luther King, when the latter was a first year student. Proctor also pastored the largest Black Baptist church in America (Abyssinian Baptist, Harlem, N.Y.) On top of his many accomplishments, he was awarded 60 honorary degrees and was labeled as one of the top two preachers in America. Upon retirement, Dr. Proctor was offered to teach in any department in the University at Rutgers by President Edward Bloustein. He chose Africana Studies so that he could advise African American students and to help Dr. Leonard Bethel, who was Department Chair at the time. After his death, two schools were named after him, and at the Doctor of Ministry program at the United Theological Seminary in Ohio, the African American students who earn degrees are called Proctorites.
Around 1968 Black students at Rutgers College began to protest for the admission of a larger presence of Black students in New Brunswick , N.J. They were spurred on, also, by the memory of a Rutgers College student, Donald S. Harris, RC class of 1963, who was jailed in Americus, Georgia, 1963, following Martin Luther King's protest movement. Student leaders emerged in New Brunswick: Jerome C. Harris, Jr., RC '69 (presently a high government official in the New Jersey State government); Charles Bowers, RC '69; Karen Predow-James, DC '70 (chair of Black Women for Black Unity at Douglass College, presently a PhD in Sociology); Leon Green, RC '71 (presently a PhD Psychologist who heads up the psychological unit at the Lyons Medical Center); and Randy Green, RC '72. They were guided by Assistant Dean of Rutgers College, Attorney William Wright, RC '69; Director of the Urban University Program Eleanor Ross (the UUP was a program started for New Brunswick, NJ Black students, numbering about 300, which started in 1969); Director of Counseling for UUP, Leonard L. Bethel; and Director for the Transitional Year Program- Ed Perry (a program for NJ-wide Black students).
Besides the demands of Black students for an academic program, progressive energy and dedication among his colleagues in the Rutgers New Brunswick Provost Office, Dr. Charles Wade, Assistant Provost, and an African American, proposed the creation of an African and Afro-American Program in New Brunswick in 1968-69. After much discussion and debate, an African and Afro-American Program was created at Rutgers College in 1970 and at Livingston College in 1970 (Livingston College, of Rutgers University started in 1969 to meet the needs of "non-traditional students" from the urban setting), and Douglass College in 1971. The program was divided into three commensurate parts in keeping with the federated structure in New Brunswick with the missions of each school.
Professor Harold Weaver, a creative educator from New York was hired as the first program chair of the Rutgers College program in 1970. He hired Leonard Bethel, a theological student at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, who was teaching Afro-American Studies at the Somerset County College, North Branch, N.J (the first person to teach the subject at that newly established county college program), and counseling the first group of Black students in the Urban University Program (which became the Urban University Department in 1970). Bethel was hired as an Assistant Instructor, pending completion of the doctorate degree at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. He was the first Black faculty person at Rutgers College to be hired at that rank to rise up through the tenure process. From 1970 to 2003, he served as Department Chair 14 years, becoming the first FAS Department Chair in 1980. Besides winning the Warren I. Susman Award for teaching excellence, he was selected as a Fellow of the Oxford Roundtable, Oxford University, England. The next person hired was Momodou Manneh, a PhD candidate in the Rutgers Political Science Department (the first Black person to earn a PhD degree in that Department). Manneh, Bethel, and Weaver organized the introductory course to the Africana discipline (in 1971-72 the African and Afro-American Program on the three campuses in New Brunswick became Africana Studies) and team-taught. Manneh returned home to the Gambia , West Africa and became the highest ranking member of the Gambian Parliament, second only to the president of the country.
In the Livingston Department of Africana, the first hired was Dr. Ernest Dunn, linguist and theologian, who taught the first African language at Rutgers and one of the first in the country at the university level. He also served in the Livingston Dean's Office, and is presently retired. In 1972 came Dr. Walton Johnson, a highly respected anthropologist, who brought to Rutgers much information about South Africa where he spends a great deal of research time and has produced published works on the African country. He continues to be an invaluable member of the Department and to the university. Livingston Africana brought into the university a Swahili scholar from East Africa - Dr. Ibrahim Shariff (presently retired). Between his Swahili scholarship, and Dunn's Yoruba, Africana at Rutgers pioneered in the African language setting. Presently, the Department teaches Swahili, Arabic, Yoruba and Zulu, a program second to none in the country. A prize-winning folklorist, the late Dr. Gerald Davis, came on board in 1974-75. He developed a prize-winning documentary for television on the Black church, "The Performed Word." His participation and leadership in the Department were invaluable.
In the Douglass Department of Africana, leadership fell in the hands of the late Dr. Lawrence Houston. A respected psychologist, he brought to Africana in 1972 valuable leadership and vision. Chairing the Douglass Department of Africana until it joined the other two Africana departments in reorganization, he was a great contributor to the future vision and program of Africana at Rutgers. Following Houston was the internationally respected anthropologist and linguist, Dr. Ivan VanSertima. His prize-winning book, They Came Before Columbus was the first work to form the argument that Blacks settled in America before any other group. His twenty-eight books on subjects related to Africana has helped to make him a premier scholar on the national and international scene and an asset to the Department and Rutgers University.
In 1980 the three Departments of Africana Studies in New Brunswick, N.J joined together under the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and continues to be a part of the University program in 2009 under the leadership of Dr. Gayle T. Tate.