BY FALGUNI BASNET ’21
The Mount Holyoke history department is one of the earliest academic departments, with records dating back to 1837, the year the College was established. According to a report from the archives “first-year students were required to know American history when they entered, were launched on a sweeping survey of ancient and modern times, [and] while in the last year, the minds and morals of the seniors were informed by the study of ecclesiastical history.”
Early on, the department offered a range of courses such as “Civil War and Reconstruction,” “The West,” “Black and White Americans,” “Racist Ideology in America” and “The Central Theme in Southern History.”
In 1997, a new course that explored the role of African American women in U.S. history was added by now-department chair Mary Renda. According to a College Street Journal article from Oct. 9, 1997, “Professor Renda developed this course after finding that even though her women’s history survey course incorporated diverse voices, it was hard to let all the voices have their full say.”
But as history has shown the department, it’s not just about the classes they offer, but who’s teaching them.
In 1972, appointment of more black faculty and staff was demanded by the Afro-American Society. In a letter written to department heads on Feb. 18, 1972, the group demanded the college take steps to rectify the low number of black faculty and staff members. They also asked for a written statement regarding the number of anticipated openings for the academic year 1972-1973 and the names of black applicants who were being considered. In response, the history department sent a letter informing them that about 30 candidates were interviewed for two openings, among which was “one excellent black candidate, recommended by Yale, but he had already decided to accept a position at Howard University.”
Recently, a group of six students brought the lack of black professors in the history department to the attention of the College by passing flyers around. The message was simple: “10 PROFESSORS IN THE HISTORY DEPARTMENT. NONE ARE BLACK. WHERE’S THE DIVERSITY? #LET’STALK”
“Mount Holyoke really prides themselves on having a diverse student body,” said Tumi Moloto ’20, one of the students who spread the flyers, “But we did not see that represented in faculty, which is very unfortunate. We want to see ourselves represented.”
“It’s already alienating being a person of color in a predominantly white campus, and the fact that your faculty is not diverse and you’re not getting the perspective of an educated black professor alongside other educated faculty members adds a further alienation,” said Emily Roles Fotso ’21, who also helped bring awareness to this problem.
History department faculty responded to these concerns with flyers next to the students’ which read, “We hear you, let’s talk.” Renda assured students that the department would address diversity with or without students’ continued work on this issue. “While we want very much to be in conversation with all interested students,” said Renda, “I also want to acknowledge that it is our responsibility to address this in a way that will have a lasting and permanent impact, to the best of our ability, whether or not the students who initiated this campaign choose to meet with us again.”