We are approaching the end of February, and with it the end of Black History Month. If you have been reading my blog for more than a year, you already know that I have not limited the subject of black history to the month of February. As I shared earlier, black history is American history and it happens every day of the year.
Since launching A Bridge for Business & STEM four years ago, I have, however, attempted to make at least one post on this important topic during the month of February. Four years of blogging provides me with a decent archive to retrieve content from. Earlier this month I re-shared two previous posts: It All Started on a Bus … Remembering Rosa Parks, and The Content of my Character is Not Missing in Action (MIA) via social media.
At the beginning of this month, I had no idea which historical person or topic I would develop content on. By mid-month, the subject continued to elude me. And then, it happened! The spotlight fell on Lucy Diggs Slowe – the subject for this post.
Her name may not be as familiar to you as a Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Mary McCloud Bethune, Condoleezza Rice or Michelle Obama. This is another reason why I have chosen to share some highlights about her extraordinary life with you.
My first encounter with the name “Lucy Diggs Slowe” was during a trip to Washington, DC where I visited with a first cousin, a second year medical student at the time, at Howard University. He was a resident of Slowe Hall, which had transitioned from an all-female to all-male dormitory just off main campus. Later, as a freshman at Howard University, I would learn that Lucy Diggs Slowe was Howard University’s first Dean of Women whose contributions for women of color and the academic and African-American communities are well documented.
Early Years in Virginia and Maryland: Slowe was born in Berryville, VA in 1885. Her parents were Henry and Fannie Porter Slowe. Although the causes are unknown to me, both her parents died before she turned six. Lucy went to live with her Aunt Martha Price in Lexington, VA. At age 13, she and her family moved to Baltimore, MD where she enrolled in the Baltimore Colored School.
Slowe demonstrated excellent academic performance and graduated second in her class from Baltimore Colored School in 1904. She became the first scholarship recipient and first female graduate to attend Howard.
A Student at Howard University: At Howard she participated in a number of extracurricular activities including serving as president of the women’s tennis team.
She is recognized as one of the nine original founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated – the first Greek letter sorority for black women. The sorority was founded on January 15, 1908 at Howard University. She was instrumental in drafting the sorority’s constitution and served as the chapter’s first president.
She was named valedictorian of Howard’s graduating Class of 1908. It was at Howard that Slowe got a taste for what would be one of her calling cards: Improving the conditions for African-American women in higher education.
Early Career: After obtaining her undergraduate degree, Slowe accepted a teaching position at Douglass High School in Baltimore. She decided to pursue a graduate education at Columbia University in New York during the summers and earned her master of arts degree in 1915. She also attended Columbia’s Teacher’s College, taking classes in Student Personnel.
In addition to the high priority Slowe placed on education, she stayed on top of her tennis game. In 1917 she became the first African-American woman to win a national title in any sport when she claimed the first women’s title at the American Tennis Association (ATA) national tournament in Baltimore.
Slowe’s ATA title came in the middle of a stint teaching at Armstrong Manual Training School, one of three black high schools in Washington, DC where Slowe also served as dean of girls for one year. In 1919, the District of Columbia’s Board of Education asked her to create the first black junior high school in its system, and then appointed her principal. She led the school until 1922.
New Role as Dean of Women: In 1922, Slowe accepted a newly created position at Howard University – Dean of Women. Like many new positions, much of the content for a position description had yet to be written. To ensure success in this new role, Slowe studied the procedures of female deans at other universities and maintained close ties with Columbia’s Dr. Romiett Stevens, who developed the first course for female deans in the United States.
Perhaps the most notable of Slowe’s early achievements at Howard was the establishment of a women’s campus. Stressing the need for female students to have a dedicated area on campus for their physical and social development as well as for the training of their minds. Her efforts led to the building of three new dormitories for females on Howard’s campus.
In the early to mid-1920s great changes were taking place on the campuses of black colleges. Slowe was at the forefront of ensuring the roles of African-Americans on these campuses. In 1922 she helped organize and served as the first president of the National Association of College Women (NACW), an organization dedicated to raising the standards in colleges for black women, developing women faculty, and securing scholarships.
As many of my readers already know, when you are the first to do what you do, and there is no script for how to do it, and the outcomes for what things should look like are yet to be determined, there will be some ruffling of feathers. Slowe definitely ruffled her share of feathers back in the day, and that included some on the campus of Howard University.
“Her desire to empower black women students and faculty put her at odds with the university’s first black president, Mordecai Johnson [and other staff],” according to Linda Perkins in the Journal of Negro History. “Johnson, an ordained Baptist preacher and a graduate of Morehouse College, was appointed president in 1926. Although he hired many black women for the faculty at Howard, he held traditional and paternalistic views.”
To be fair to Dr. Johnson, he was not the only male or administrator who thought this way. As a friend regularly says, “That’s the way they rolled back in the day.” Gender inequalities were alive and well in the academy and just about any other place during the first half of the 20th century. Women and persons of color are still battling some of these issues today.
Johnson rejected Slowe’s views on gender equality and the empowering of women and was somewhat appalled by her liberal attitudes towards women in general. Within months of his arrival, and until her death in 1937, Johnson and Slowe had consistent clashes concerning her role, authority, equitable pay, and the overall status of women at Howard. Often progress is preceded by a struggle.
The appointment of female deans to African-American colleges was also an important mission of the NACW. Through her experiences as the first formally trained dean of women students, she also attempted to convince college presidents that the position was one to be filled by an education professional and not the typical “matron” that had traditionally been placed in the role.
Howard hosted the first meeting of the National Association of Women’s Deans and Advisors of Colored Schools (NAWDACS) in 1929. The forum provided Slowe, who served as the organization’s first president, with the opportunity to outline the changes needed for female administrators on college campuses. Her work on behalf of females was so respected at the time that she was invited to address the predominately white National Association of Women Deans in 1931, the first African-American to do so.
Throughout the 1930s, she continued to spearhead progress for African-Americans on college campuses, lobbying for changes in academic standards for students, better health conditions on campuses, as well as an improved workplace atmosphere for female administrators.
Selected Honors and Awards:
1943 – Howard University named Slowe Hall after Lucy Diggs Slowe to honor her legacy. Initially established as a dormitory for graduate women, it is now a co-ed residence that is still in existence today.
1986 – Slowe was posthumously honored with a plaque presented by the National Association of Women Deans, Administrators and Counselors at their 70th convention.
2007 – Slowe is mentioned in an exhibit, Breaking the Barriers: The ATA and Black Tennis Pioneers, sponsored by the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum
2015 – The First Street Tunnel project named their third Tunnel Boring Machine, “Lucy,” in honor of Lucy Diggs Slowe.
Slowe was one of the earliest black women formally trained in student personnel. During her 15-year tenure at Howard, Slowe became an outspoken advocate for self-determination, respect, and advancement of college-trained African-American women.
As Perkins writes in the Journal of Negro History, “Slowe viewed the talents and capabilities of African-American women as so great in potential that they should be shared with the world and not just their race. She was very interested in international affairs and relations and sought to interest African-American women students in these areas as well. Her aim was to prepare them for the modern world. She wanted African-American women students to aspire to leadership, to become scholars, researchers, activists against social injustice, and to reject the limits that society placed upon them.”
Slowe died on Oct. 21, 1937, from kidney failure. In her brief 52 years on this earth, she shaped the lives of countless African-American females and others thru tireless efforts to prepare them for life in the “modern world”.
She was a person of vision. She was a person with strategy. She also was a person who knew how to execute vision and strategy. As a result, she has a lasting legacy and her influence continues today.
More recently, we were reminded of the lasting impacts that Lucy Diggs Slowe left on her country and the world when the third tunnel boring machine (TBM) for the Clean Rivers Project – a project to revamp the district’s dilapidated sewer system – was named Lucy. Naming TBMs after women is a longstanding tradition much like boats are christened in the nautical world, however, Lucy – named after Lucy Diggs Slowe, Howard University’s first dean of women — was the first of D.C.’s TBMs to be named by popular vote.
Lucy, has her own Twitter account. This is also true for the other two TBMs for this project: Lady Bird (named after former first lady Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson) and Nannie (named after African American educator Nannie Helen Burroughs).
How about that? More than 100 years later, not only is Lucy Diggs Slowe still making her mark on the world, we are also tweeting about her!
Sources Referenced for this Post:
- Lucy Diggs Slowe, Maryland’s Women’s Hall of Fame, http://msa.maryland.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/slowe.html
- Lucy Diggs Slowe: Champion of the Self-Determination of African-American Women in Higher Education, by Linda M. Perkins in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 81, No. 1/4, Vindicating the Race: Contributions to African-American Intellectual History (Winter – Autumn, 1996), pp. 89-104 Published by: Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2717610
- Meet ‘Lucy,’ a 1,582-ton tunnel boring machine that tweets, by Sadie Dingfelder for the Washington Post, April 20, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2015/04/20/meet-lucy-a-1582-ton-tunnel-boring-machine-that-tweets/