Teaching United States History is excited to present Teach My Book, a series of posts where distinguished authors reflect on their work and how instructors might integrate their insights into the classroom. Our thoughts today come from Jelani M. Favors, Associate Professor of History at Clayton State University. Dr. Favors is discussing his new book Shelter in a Time of Storm: How Black Colleges Fostered Generations of Leadership and Activism (UNC 2019).
- Can you give us a brief overview of your book’s argument, narrative, and historiographical contribution?
My book is entitled Shelter in a Time of Storm: How Black Colleges Fostered Generations of Leadership and Activism. It is the first comprehensive and intimate portrait of how our nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) served as seedbeds for insurgency and dissent that ultimately produced the modern Civil Rights Movement. From one generation to the next, HBCUs served as enclaves for Black youth as Jim Crow and white supremacy became firmly entrenched throughout American society. Their nurturing environment aided in the politicization of students and ultimately resulted in an unprecedented wave of activism that shook the foundations of America and forever altered the political destiny of the United States.
Shelter in a Time of Storm illuminates the history of student activism at seven historically Black colleges. These institutions represent a diverse cross-section of Black colleges: northern and southern, private and public, conservative and liberal. This research will demonstrate that HBCUs were complex institutions that were charged with a mission to educate, elevate, and transform African American youth into citizens empowered to engage in dissent. By sifting through black college newspapers, memoirs, diaries, and papers of past administrators and faculty, and through oral interviews of key players, Shelter in a Time of Storm has produced the most intimate portrait yet of the inner workings of Black college life that made these institutions invaluable sources of militancy during the struggle for Black liberation.
- How does your book shape the broadest narratives in American history? How should survey courses in American history reflect the arguments and evidence of your study?
Dissent is perhaps the most important defining characteristic of the American narrative. Indeed our nation’s history has largely been a story of slow and gradual inclusion. Since our inception, marginalized people in this country have fought to declare, like the poet Langston Hughes once wrote, that “We Too Sing America.” While a number of historians have made us acutely aware of the role that labor unions, religious institutions, civil rights organizations, and special interests groups have played in generating the activists energies that transformed America, few histories have been produced that highlight how colleges and universities generated radical idealism and functioned as incubators of militancy and dissent. Shelter in a Time of Storm follows with the trend of long movement histories that have emerged over the last two decades to illustrate how Black colleges carved out crucial space to not only educate youth, but also to deliberately fit them with a mission to serve as change agents in their respective communities and professional fields. Shelter in a Time of Storm traces that development from the founding of the very first Black college in 1837 and highlights that mission through the rise of the hip-hop era of the 1980s and 90s.
Shelter in a Time of Storm eschews the “top down narrative” and documents the experiences of numerous students, faculty, and administrators who carved out interstitial space within Black colleges and administered a “second curriculum” that was powerful, instructive, and liberating. It therefore argues that key players and change agents operated from both the bottom and the middle in order to catalyze the movement. Students will understand how student activism emerged as a threat to forces that sought to undermine democracy and freedom in America. Yet the book also highlights the complexities of social movements and how they are often undermined by both external and internal forces. Shelter in a Time of Storm examines social, political, and economic barriers that confronted African Americans from the antebellum era through the 20th century and documents how marginalized Americans strove to have their voices heard in a society that in both practice and in theory deemed them as both inferior and in many ways invisible.
- What courses commonly taught at the college level besides the survey would most benefit from considering your work?
This book would pair well with courses on Modern African American History, History of Education, History of Black Education, History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement, History of the Early Civil Rights Movement, History of the New South, History of Reconstruction, and History of the Nadir. By themselves, the chapters on Bennett College, Alabama State University, and Jackson State University would work very well in courses on Women Studies and Black Feminism.
- If instructors were to excerpt a chapter or two from your book, which chapters do you think would be most useful, and why?
I think the chapter entitled Our Aims are High and Our Determinations Deep: Alabama State University and the Dissolution of Fear, 1930-1960 provides a fascinating narrative that bridges the New Negro Era of the early 20th century and places the reader at the epicenter of the modern Civil Rights Movement during post World War II America. It makes the argument that the catalyst of this movement was heavily dependent on the radicalization of Black students who were deliberately politicized within the racialized space of Black colleges. It places women at the center of this development and further erodes the top-down, patriarchal narrative that previously placed Black male ministers and labor leaders at the center. Furthermore, it illustrates how HBCUs served as a seedbed for idealism and radicalism that overtly challenged Jim Crow policies in the Deep South.
Additionally, the epilogue entitled It’s a Different World: The Rise of the Hip-Hop Generation and the Corruption of the Black College Communitas adequately elucidates the challenges that HBCUs have experienced since integration that have jeopardized their ability to serve as incubators for militancy and radicalism as they once did for much of the 20th century. The book concludes by examining the loss of talented Black faculty from HBCUs that rapidly occurred during the last quarter of the century, the desegregation of college sports and its impact in exacerbating the wealth gap between predominantly white institutions and HBCUs, and the rise of STEM and the role it has played in eroding financial support for the humanities and the spirit of radical idealism as it once existed on Black college campuses.
- Have you integrated any of the lessons learned from this research project into your own teaching? If so, how, and to what effect?
I have frequently presented students taking my upper level African American History survey or my History of Student Activism class with a final assignment entitled “Project Activism” that requires them to conclude the course with a group project that generates a socially conscious activity/protest. Students in my classes where I have used this assignment have developed projects that address a variety of topics such as gentrification, environmental racism, bullying, etc. On a more personal note, the work that I conducted in researching and writing this manuscript continues to challenge me to think critically about my relationship with my students and how I can (and in my opinion, should) encourage and directly influence my students to serve as positive change agents in their communities and strive to make our country more inclusive, fair, and just.
- Did your book utilize any publicly available primary sources? If so, what are they, what did they do for your study, and how might instructors use them in their classes?
Few scholars have mined the precious primary resources found within Black college newspapers. Shelter in a Time of Storm made Black college newspapers the bedrock of the study. HBCU newspapers offer the fullest testimony to the political climate of campus, an exposé of the endless caravan of activists, scholars, and labor leaders that addressed and instructed students as campus visitors, and the growing militancy that students displayed in sharply written editorials and news stories. With the exception of the first chapter where the Institute for Colored Youth (Cheyney State University) had no student run newspapers during the period that I examined, every chapter of the manuscript leans heavily upon newspapers as a barometer of consciousness and activism on campus. While many of these newspapers have not been digitized, there are an increasing number of Black college newspapers that have and should indeed by consulted by both teachers and scholars looking to learn more about this critical space and the role it played in strengthening American democracy. The arguments made within Shelter in a Time of Storm were also supplemented with memoirs, diaries, oral histories, and organizational papers and minutes. The result is a deeply intimate portrait of HBCU life.