January 2009 Issue Volume 37 Issue 1

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MFP Kicks Off 35th Anniversary Year

by Karina Havrilla and Jean H. Shin, ASA Minority Affairs Program


The panel at the 35th Anniversary of the
ASA Minority Fellowship Program Special Session
(from left to right): Charles U. Smith, Edgar G. Epps,
Florence Bonner, and Robert Newby (standing)

During the 2008 ASAAnnual Meeting in Boston, the Minority Fellowship Program (MFP) kicked off its 35th anniversary year celebration with a series of special events. The highlight was a special session organized to look back at the struggles that minority sociologists, and African American sociologists in particular, faced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. According to James E. Blackwell, they worked to "extricate themselves from an entrenched marginalized status as sociologists [and were steadfastly determined] to be included as participants in the affairs of the ASA." Centered on the years leading up to the founding of MFP in 1974, the session was organized by Florence Bonner (Howard University) and Aldon Morris (Northwestern University), and presided over by Robert Newby (Central Michigan University, emeritus). The distinguished panelists for the session included Charles U. Smith (Florida A&M University, emeritus), Edgar G. Epps (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), and Blackwell (University of Massachusetts-Boston, emeritus), who was unable to attend the meeting in person but gave his detailed memoirs in a working paper that was presented by Bonner.

Marginalized Status

In his recollections, Blackwell argued that African American sociologists experienced marginalized status during the ASA’s first 65 years, paralleling their experiences in American society during this period. Black sociologists faced social isolation, structural discrimination, denial of access to core values of the organization, and a sense of invisibility. The 1960s crystallized a determination to fight against this inequality in the discipline, as was occurring in society overall. Central issues included limited opportunities for students of color to receive undergraduate and graduate education outside of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Research conducted by Conyers, Epps, Howze, and Blackwell identified six non-HBCU schools that played pivotal roles in providing opportunities for African American students to receive a doctoral education in sociology: University of Chicago, Ohio State University, Washington State University, Columbia University, University of Iowa, and Indiana University-Bloomington. These institutions awarded 60 percent of the approximately 160 PhDs granted to African American sociologists from 1911 to 1967, providing them with scholarships, assistantships, fellowships, mentoring, and a supportive environment.

Blackwell maintained that graduate students of color found that regardless of the support they received during their training, there were few employment opportunities in these institutions, and they had few choices other than working at HBCUs. HBCUs were primarily teaching-oriented schools, providing little opportunity for professors of color to conduct research and prepare for conference presentations. According to Blackwell, those who were able to conduct research and join organizations like ASA felt that while "inclusiveness was a right of membership," their papers were rejected and they were excluded from the governance of the organization.

Changing the Status Quo

Blackwell observes that it was not until 1968 that "sociologists (including African Americans, women, Marxists, gays and lesbians, graduate students, and junior and senior faculty) decided it was time to do something about this exclusion by the elite establishment." During the 1968 Annual Meeting (coincidentally also held in Boston), Tillman Cothran gathered a group of African-American sociologists to protest the status of the Association’s African-American members. This group later formed an Ad Hoc Caucus of Black Sociologists tasked with presenting the ASA Council with resolutions aimed at addressing their professional grievances. The six resolutions were approved during the Boston business meeting, and Council agreed that the Association would make greater efforts to include African-American sociologists in meetings, governance, and other activities.

"...we should not lose sight of the long history of MFP and the significance it has played in the lives of hundreds of minority sociologists."

Minority Fellowship Program Begins

Blackwell reports that many African American sociologists felt that the Association’s efforts did not lead to much change during the 1968-69 period, so at the 1969 Annual Meeting in San Francisco, the Ad Hoc Caucus proposed more resolutions to Council. One of these was to establish the Minority Fellowship Program. The resolution stated "that the ASA undertake a program designed to provide scholarships and other forms of financial assistance for black students interested in sociology."

William H. Sewell undertook to use his 1969-70 ASA presidential year to create a more diverse membership across all underrepresented minority groups. Sewell not only appointed more sociologists of color to various committees, he also appointed the Committee on the Status of Racial and Ethnic Minorities in Sociology (then known as CSREMS) to address recruitment, training, and retention of African American and other minority graduate students in the discipline. Sewell also created a staff sociologist position within the ASA headquarters to focus on the status of racial and ethnic minorities and the status of women. Maurice Jackson, a professor at the University of California-Riverside, was appointed Executive Specialist on Minorities and Women in 1971. Jackson worked closely with subsequent ASA Executive Officers N.J. Demerath and Otto Larsen to encourage the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to fund a pre-doctoral fellowship program, explicitly for minorities. After two and a half years and three grant proposals, NIMH awarded the ASA an institutional training grant for approximately one million dollars over a six-year period. It was designed to provide support for talented graduate students from all underrepresented minority groups.

MFP Past and Future

Following Bonner’s presentation of Blackwell’s reflections on the origins of MFP, Charles U. Smith further contextualized MFP in the larger sweep of post-World War II U.S. history. He also emphasized MFP’s relationship with other social movements and argued that because the work of integrating the discipline has not been completed, MFP should be sustained and bolstered. Epps stressed the urgency of continuing such programs that we should not lose sight of the long history of MFP and the significance it has played in the lives of hundreds of minority sociologists. He emphasized the importance of the professional networks that the program has created over 35 years, and how invaluable they have been and will continue to be in the mentoring of future generations of minority scholars in the discipline. Newby eloquently and poignantly closed the session by describing the impact that MFP has had in linking the different communities of minority sociologists.


William Velez was a member of MFP Cohort 1
and is currently on the faculty
at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Following the presentations, the numerous former MFP Fellows and supporters of MFP who then came forward to speak expressed what the fellowship meant to them and how the support they received sustained them both professionally and personally. They included William Velez (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), a member of the first graduate cohort of MFP, as well as current ASA President Patricia Hill Collins (University of Maryland), Patricia White (National Science Foundation), Deborah K. King (Dartmouth College), and Giovani Burgos (McGill University).

Since 1974, the ASA Minority Fellowship Program has funded more than 475 graduate students of color. Today, NIMH supports 15 pre-doctoral trainees under the T-32 grant mechanism; MFP Fellows selected this past spring make up Cohort 35. Additional organizational partnerships (contributing to five more pre-doctoral trainee slots) now exist with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Alpha Kappa Delta, Sociologists for Women in Society, the Midwest Sociological Society, the Association of Black Sociologists, and the Southwestern Sociological Association. As the ASA prepares for its 104th Annual Meeting in San Francisco, MFP will continue to celebrate its 35th year by looking back at triumphs and struggles of the program through additional forthcoming Footnotes articles. These pieces will focus on the many, diverse voices represented within MFP across almost four decades, and highlight the activities in San Francisco that will complete the 35th anniversary celebration. logo_small

Note: A description of the MFP special session in Boston also recently appeared in the October 2008 issue of The Griot, the official newsletter for the Association of Black Sociologists. That synopsis was edited by Roderick Bush, St. John’s University, drawing from the memoirs of James Blackwell and input from the ASA Minority Affairs Program.


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