April 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 4

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Emerita Profile

Essie Rutledge: Blazing a Trail in African American Studies

Craig Scharr, ASA Membership Department

Essie Rutledge

Essie Rutledge

Essie Rutledge is a pioneer in the fields of sociology and African American studies. She was born in Alabama in 1934 during the height of The Great Depression. Her father was a farmer and her mother worked as a domestic.

When Rutledge’s parents divorced she moved with her mother to St. Petersburg, FL, in 1946. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the St. Petersburg public school system was segregated racially so Rutledge attended all black schools through high school. Barriers to educational integration continued even after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 when Rutledge’s brother was denied access to public universities despite being class valedictorian at his high school.

When Rutledge completed her high school education, she earned a scholarship for nursing school in Atlanta; however, the scholarship did not cover living expenses and she was unable to complete her schooling. Rutledge was later admitted to Florida A&M University under a work scholarship program that required full-time students to devote a certain number of hours to working jobs on campus. She was initially interested in a social work career, but she later learned that African Americans were excluded from social work jobs in Florida. She then decided to major in sociology. As an undergraduate at Florida A&M., Rutledge became a member of the American Sociological Association.

Roadblocks and Discrimination

After she earned her bachelor’s degree, Rutledge was offered a teaching position at a junior college in Florida, but she first had to complete a master’s degree to teach at the institution. Again, she encountered discrimination. According to Rutledge, when she applied to the University of Florida, the school made an interesting offer. “Florida paid my tuition to go out of state because they would not admit me to the school.” Florida’s loss was the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s gain.   

Rutledge earned her MA in sociology at Madison in 1964 and went on to a full-time teaching career at Gibbs Junior College in St. Petersburg, FL. Unfortunately, during this period, Gibbs Junior College (a predominately black school) was merged with St. Petersburg College (a predominately white school), and several teachers from Gibbs were not retained during the merger. In 1967, Rutledge and other black faculty members who lost their jobs filed a lawsuit against the school district alleging racial bias in the personnel decisions. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. During this time, the National Education Association offered a stipend to the fired teachers, and with the help of a colleague, Rutledge was able to find a tenure-track position at Macomb County Community College in suburban Detroit, MI.

In 1971, Rutledge enrolled the PhD program at the University of Michigan, finishing her doctorate studies in 1974. She later discovered that she was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in sociology at Michigan.

"I could easily count how many black
women were at the sociology meetings.
The lack of financial aid was hindering
opportunities for young black scholars
to continue their education."

Few Women and Minorities

In the early 70s, when Rutledge was a doctoratal student, there were few women or minorities in sociology. Her first sociology class had five black students and there was only one tenured black professor in the graduate program. “We were challenging things in the sociology department and we were challenging stuff that did not represent equality, so [the university] made some changes,” said Rutledge. At the regional and national level, there were also few black scholars participating at sociology meetings. Rutledge recalled that when she attended an ASA meeting during the 1970s, “I could easily count how many black women were at the sociology meetings. The lack of financial aid hindered opportunities for young black scholars to continue their education.”

After completing her doctorate, she was offered a one-year position at the University of Michigan-Flint campus. The director of the African American Studies program at UM-Flint encouraged Rutledge to apply for a chair position within the African American Studies Department at Western Illinois University. She was chair of that department for eight and a half years. Western Illinois would later change the African American Studies Department into a program as part of a university-wide reorganization. Rutledge declined the offer to serve as the director of the program and transferred to the sociology department.

During her second year in the sociology department, Rutledge participated in a committee to develop a master’s degree program in gerontology. She earned tenure within three years after her switch to the sociology department. She was the first tenured black female professor at Western Illinois University.

Rutledge was involved in the Black Caucus in Sociology group within the ASA during the early 1970s. Later, she and other members of the caucus formed an independent organization, the Association of Black Sociologists (ABS). She served as president of the ABS, volunteered for association committees, and continues to participate at ABS annual meetings.

“Over the years and continuing today, Essie gives of her time and experiences unselfishly,” said BarBara M. Scott, Professor Emerita of Sociology and African American Studies at Northeastern Illinois University. “She actively mentors, networks, and supports not only graduate students—many of whom continue to keep in touch with her for years after meeting her—but also junior and senior faculty.”

Rutledge retired from teaching at Western Illinois University in 2006 but, she remains active in local organizations such as the Equal Opportunity & Fair Housing Commission in Macomb, IL, and maintains her involvement with the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Lions Club. Rutledge is occasionally invited by social justice organizations to give presentations.

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