Round of Applause for Our “Foremothers”

Tristen Johnson, Assistant Director, Office of Multicultural Affairs at the University of South Florida- Saint Petersburg

February 18, 2019

As a Black woman professional in higher education, I’ve had many no blinking staring contests with discrimination, racism, and sexism. Sometimes, I’ve found myself staring at all three simultaneously. I’d like to think I’ve won most of those contests, however, I’ve also faced systemic losses. It is no secret that Black women in higher education have faced numerous challenges over years as we’ve navigated the “Ivory Tower”. From the first time we stepped on to a predominately white campus to obtain an education in the late 1800s, society somehow made it clear that the doors of higher education would only be left slightly ajar for the uniqueness of Black women. 

But fret not, Black women have made significant strides in academe for more than a century. It is the shoulders of those foremothers who faced significant odds that myself and many other Black women in this field stand on today. So, what is a “foremother”? Foremothers are the Black women who have made significant advancements in education and higher education despite being marginalized in predominately white and/or patriarchal spaces. Garner (2004) laments that understanding our “foremothers” lives allows one to connect Black women in higher education’s experiences to those in the past. For this blog post, I chose to pay homage to two foremothers, Lucy Diggs Slowe and Mary McLeod Bethune, who dared to be resilient during times when Black people in America were still fighting for their seat at the table in higher education. 

Slowe was the first dean of women at Howard University, a historically Black college/university (HBCU) in Washington D.C. Although Howard is an HBCU and not a predominately white institution (PWI), Stowe's story is important because she was the first Black woman dean of women, a role that was once seen as a “matron” on Howard’s Campus, or a person who was supposed to look after the women. Slowe changed the dynamic of the dean of women and the relationship with female students on Howard’s campus. She is credited with wanting women on campus to develop leadership and independence so she “established three new residence halls on campus in 1931” (Garner, 2004, p. 15). She believed that individuals who served in the dean of women role should have a degree from a college because the role should be considered a professional role and more than just one of a “matron” (Hylton, 2012).  

Slowe worked under Mordecai Johnson, a white male, who was president of Howard at the time. Garner (2004) says that Johnson began to revoke Slowe’s progress that she made in her role by requiring her to move back on campus to “police” the female students and removing her from the President’s Council of Deans. He also “dismantled the entire women’s program that she built for the first eleven years of her tenure in the position” (Garner, 2004, p. 16). Despite the pushback she received from Johnson, Slowe is an example of resilience and an admirable example of leadership. Her legacy lives on through those of us who followed the path she helped create for us today.

Mary McLeod Bethune was a pioneer for the educational advancement of Black people. Towards the end of her career in education, she founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls (DEITSNG) in 1904, now Bethune-Cookman University (Glover 2012; Stanford-Randle, 2017). At a young age she was told that she could not read by a white person and she was determined to become literate (Stanford-Randle, 2017). Her home state of South Carolina did not allow the education of Black people in the late 1800s, so Bethune had no high school degree. It is inferred that this lack of access to education motivated her to create opportunities for the advancement of the Black race, specifically, Black women.

Most of Bethune’s educational ideologies surrounded the idea that Black women needed to be educated to support their families in the home, however, Garner (2004) says that Bethune also “exemplified a lifelong commitment to improving the economic and political clout of Black women” (p. 20). At the DEITSNG, Black women learned how to become teachers and Bethune served as the school’s first president. Outside of Bethune-Cookman, Bethune went on to be president of the National Association of Colored Women in 1924 and founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1934 (Garner, 2004). These organizations were prominent spaces to advocate for the education of Black women and were platforms that allowed her to be nationally recognized.

Learning about these women gave me much hope for the longevity of Black women professionals in higher education. I’ve been in spaces where I felt that my Blackness and my woman-ness were considered a threat against the implicit biases that academe consciously or unconsciously holds for Black women. Lucy Diggs Slowe and Mary McLeod Bethune did not give up when they were faced with adversity or when their peers tried to dismantle the things that they built. They continued to use their voices and their networks to push through. Today, I believe that their strength has been passed down to me and other Black women who may feel isolated in their environments. It is our duty to continue the legacy that our foremothers started. 

To Ms. Lucy and Ms. Mary, I thank you for laying down the pavement to the road I now travel.


Garner, R. (2004). Contesting the terrain of the ivory tower: Spiritual leadership of African-American women in the academy. New York, NY: Routledge.

Glover, M. H. (2012). Historical overview of Black women in higher education administration. 

In Jones, T. B., Dawkins, L. S., McClinton, M. M., & Glover, M. H. (Ed.), Pathway to higher education administration for African American women (4-17). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Hylton, D. G. (2012). In her own voice: A narrative study of the persistence strategies of eight African American women vice presidents for student affairs at predominately white institutions (Order No. 3520478). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1033785636). 

Stanford-Randle, G. (2017). The enigmatic "cross-over" leadership life of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) (Order No. 10753614). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2006954858).


Tristen B. Johnson is the Assistant Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs at the University of South Florida – St. Petersburg. She is currently a Ph.D. student in the Educational Administration and Foundations department at Illinois State University.

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