Black Americans elevated education, fought racism

The late Washington and Lee professor Ted DeLaney on campus in 2015 (© Kevin Remington/Washington and Lee)
The late Washington and Lee professor Ted DeLaney on campus in 2015 (© Kevin Remington/Washington and Lee)

Ted DeLaney arrived at Washington and Lee University as a janitor. By the time he left, he’d been chairman of its history department. DeLaney’s story is extraordinary, but his path is one shared by millions of Black Americans: Overcome prejudice, seize new opportunities, and contribute to your community and your nation.

DeLaney was born and raised in Lexington, Virginia — home of Washington and Lee University. He received a scholarship to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta — a historically black college or university (HBCU). But in 1961, his mother was afraid for his safety, given the backlash against the civil rights movement, and would not let him attend.

At that time, African Americans were underrepresented among college graduates — only 3% held a bachelor’s degree, compared to 9% for whites. Jim Crow–era laws that discriminated against Black students by denying them entry to traditionally white institutions were one reason.

Ted DeLaney in 2015 (© Kevin Remington/Washington and Lee)

That’s why DeLaney’s first role at Washington and Lee was as a custodian. The university did not accept Black students until 1964.

That year, the newly passed Civil Rights Act forbade discrimination in public schools on the basis of race, color, sex, religion or national origin. It similarly forbade the same discrimination in any educational institution that received federal financial assistance.

As Washington and Lee University became more integrated, DeLaney started part-time night classes while working as a lab technician during the day.

After a decade and a half of part-time work and four years of full-time classes, DeLaney finally received an undergraduate degree in 1985 at the age of 41. He then pursued a doctorate in history at the College of William and Mary, earning it in 1995, one of 1,287 Black Ph.D. graduates in the United States that year.

DeLaney came back to teach at Washington and Lee, eventually becoming a tenured history professor. He co-founded the university’s first African American studies program. And from 2013 to 2017, he was chair of the university’s history department.

 

Students walk through the University of Texas at Austin campus in Austin, Texas, in September 2012. The school was once slow to integrate but is now one of the most diverse universities in the United States. (© Eric Gay/AP Images)

Racism’s legacy in education

The most recent data shows the percentage of Black undergraduates enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities (14%) is just above the percentage of the U.S. population that is Black (13.4%).

But decades of segregation and prejudicial admissions policies mean that only 26% of Black Americans held a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2019, compared to 40% of white Americans. And hiring of Black faculty members has not kept pace.

The most recent data shows that 6% of all professors in the United States are Black, and 96% of all Black tenured professors teach at HBCUs.

However, non-HBCU institutions are looking to fix that disparity. According to a recent report by Inside Higher Ed:

  • Syracuse University will begin a diverse faculty hiring initiative.
  • The Rhode Island School of Design is hiring 10 new tenure-track or tenured professors as a part of its race in art and design initiative.
  • Stanford University will hire 10 new scholars who study race in American society.
  • The University of Chicago’s English department will prioritize Black studies scholars this graduate admissions cycle.

And Black scholars are calling for change that extends beyond hiring practices.

Following the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, Ted DeLaney was one of three faculty members on a commission to recommend steps for Washington and Lee — named in part for the Confederate general and slaveholder Robert E. Lee — to address its problematic past.

The commission’s report, released in 2018, included recommendations to increase representation of Black Americans on the university’s faculty and to establish reciprocal study programs and faculty exchange programs with minority-serving institutions.

DeLaney retired in June 2020 as professor emeritus of history, six months before his death. Following his retirement, a postdoctoral fellowship, a lecture series in Africana Studies, and a scholarship in the humanities and interdisciplinary studies were established in his name.

Molly Michelmore, DeLaney’s colleague and the current chair of the Washington and Lee history department, told the New York Times, “He was always willing to call out the institution on its failure to live up to its promise.”

That’s what Americans who fight for racial equality continue to do: call out institutions — educational, governmental and social — when they fail to live up to their promise.