By Tiffany Pennamon
Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s appointment as the first African-American chair of the Department of History at Harvard University is significant, but not for the reasons most would expect.
Harvard has previously had Black heads of departments, Higginbotham noted, and her new role is not “the most important administrative job” as the university now has four African-American women leading colleges at the Ivy League school.
Instead, Higginbotham, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African-American Studies, believes the significance of her appointment comes in honoring the legacies of those who have paved the way for African-Americans’ contributions to the field of history.
“I feel absolutely indebted to those who have created the situation by which we can teach African-American history in our schools, and we can teach in these universities on the faculty and that we can produce Ph.D.’s with this specific emphasis,” Higginbotham said of her chair appointment. “It’s really quite an honor.”
“I am chair of the department from which W.E.B. Du Bois received his Ph.D. in 1895,” Higginbotham continued, “and I am chair of the department that Carter G. Woodson received his Ph.D. – the second [African-American] in history – in 1912.”
The scholar and president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) also cites prominent historians Dr. Charles H. Wesley, Dr. Rayford W. Logan, Dr. John Hope Franklin, Dr. Nathan Huggins and Dr. Nell Painter as heroes.
“These are historians who have dedicated their lives to the story of African-Americans,” Higginbotham said. “I am now the chair of the department who sent them on their way with a Ph.D., and I am just honored to represent their legacy and I am honored to represent the current faculty and students.”
Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead, associate professor of Communication and African and African-American Studies at Loyola University Maryland and ASALH’s national secretary, said that Higginbotham’s “inspiring” appointment as Harvard’s History chair marks an occasion that has come full circle because the historian is also president of ASALH, the organization founded by Woodson in 1915 to promote, preserve and disseminate knowledge on Black life, history and culture.
“Dr. Higginbotham and the work that she has done, from being recognized by President Obama to helping us think about the ways in which we profile and talk about Black women and respectability politics, she’s always been a leader in pushing for the importance of teaching African-American history,” Whitehead said. “She is someone who young historians, like myself, look up to. We aspire to have a career that is as full and as impactful as hers is.”
Whitehead added that Higginbotham is among the Black women in positions of power at Harvard that will shape the “next generation of bright minds” and “keep the door open” for more scholars to succeed.
Higginbotham will help “people to understand that African-American history is American history and that we are the keeper of all stories … it’s not something separate,” she said. “She is truly living the life of what 19th Century Black women said when they said you must lift as you climb. Dr. Higginbotham is truly lifting as she climbs.”