Louisiana’s oldest college is celebrating its first lifetime appointment to a Black faculty member, and discussing why this racial milestone took nearly two centuries to accomplish.
“I think that’s the million-dollar question. It’s something I know will be highlighted and discussed” at Centenary College of Louisiana’s event Thursday honoring the now-tenured associate professor Andia Augustin-Billy, college spokeswoman Kate Pedrotty said.
Chris Brown, school’s archivist, explained that racism is the reason this has taken 196 years. “Structural and institutional and systemic racism has been present ever since the college was founded, largely by enslavers,” he said.
This history is undeniable, but it’s also in the past, said Christopher Holoman, president of the Methodist-affiliated college in Shreveport.
“Any institution that is as old as Centenary, particularly one in the South, must take account of the role that racism played in its history,” Holoman said. “As we move forward, Centenary is committed to full inclusion of all members of our community and working towards a just society.”
Augustin-Billy, known on campus as “Dr. A-B,” pronounced “ah-bay,” is an award-winning teacher of French and Francophone Studies who leads Centenary students on trips to Paris and Haiti, where she grew up as the daughter of missionaries.
Additionally, she teaches African and Caribbean literature as well as postcolonial and gender studies to students who are 18% Black, Black, or of another race. That’s slightly ahead of the national percentage of college-aged Blacks: 16.7% of U.S. residents age 18 through 24 in 2018, according to U.S. Census figures.
Zuri Jenkins (Black senior majoring English, French, and international business) was surprised to be awarded tenure by Brown in February.
Surprised because she’s seen the school pushing for diversity — but then there’s Centenary’s history: It was not only built on slavery but admitted only white men for years thereafter, Jenkins said.
Centenary, which also admitted its first Black student in 1966, was one of the few Louisiana institutions to do so. Louisiana State University was the first university to admit a black student of law in 1950. It also admitted its first African American undergraduates in 1953. Louisiana Tech was integrated in 1965, and Louisiana College (a small Baptist school) in 1967.
Fred Bonner II, identified by Brown as Centenary’s first Black professor, agreed that the school is burdened with past racism but said it’s “really trying to move the needle in a positive direction.”
Bonner fondly remembers Centenary 1997-1998 when Bonner was an instructor in the final semester of his doctoral studies at the University of Arkansas, and later a visiting associate Professor. At the time, he knew of only one Black student who wasn’t on the basketball team. But he enjoyed weekly faculty dinners, and white students cheered when he earned his PhD and told them “I’m Dr. Bonner now.”
Augustin-Billy questioned the archivist, one day after being awarded tenure, to see if any tenured Black faculty had existed. She wanted to thank them for helping her get here.
“There was no one,” she said.
There don’t appear to be any national data on degree-granting schools which have never granted tenure to Blacks.
The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reports that the two first African Americans to be granted tenure in predominantly-white schools were in 1947 and 1952. National Center for Education Statistics data shows that dozens of colleges and universities haven’t reported any tenured Black faculty members between 2012 and 2020.
None of these schools were home to fewer than 3000 students, except for three. With a current enrollment of 523 students and 54 faculty members, Centenary ranks among the most small schools. Pedrotty stated that two of the 27 full-time faculty members are Black or African American and one part-time.
“We don’t employ a large number of faculty. A lot of African American faculty is in demand. We do our best to be competitive with all our faculty hires,” Holoman said.
According to data from the U.S. Education Department, African Americans accounted for 13.3% of all college students in 2019. However, only 6% of faculty were African Americans. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education revealed that only 47% of tenure-holding full-time black faculty were white, while 38.3% of Black full time faculty was.
This year, Black faculty tenure disputes focused on University of North Carolina. They offered Nikole Henderson-Jones a Journalism Professorship with an Endowed Journalism Professorship. Tenure talks were stopped after Nikole was questioned by a member of the board and another powerful donor. After being offered tenure, she took up a position at Howard University.
Professors usually have to teach five- or six years before they can be considered for tenure-track posts. Bonner received a Centenary tenure-track job offer, but chose to take a Bowling Green State University position that was more in line with his research interests. Now he’s a regents professor at Prairie View A&M and editor of a book series titled “Diverse Faculty in the Academy.”
Bonner said Centenary should emphasize that Shreveport’s population is 50% Black when recruiting minority faculty.
“From my own experience and the writing I’ve read and edited, for faculty of color one of most important things is support” both on and off a predominantly white campus, “because you feel so isolated,” he said.
Augustin-Billy stated that she met a woman aged 71 who claimed she had been to Grambling State University with other relatives, which is a historic Black university located just two hours from Augustin-Billy. “Centenary was not for us. … We never felt like it was our space, our place,” the woman told her.
“I’m hoping this story will spark very needed dialogue about having Black scholars in academia,” Augustin-Billy said. “There has to be. There has to be.”