The creation of a formal department of African American Studies at UMBC began in 1970 as an outgrowth of discussions between UMBC officials and students who were aware of the installation of “Black Studies” programs at a number of predominantly white institutions around the nation. This coalition of administrators, faculty members, and students was successful in convincing the UMBC campus of the intellectual and scholarly merits of such a program by the end of 1970. Subsequently, Dr. Elechukwu Njaka, former head of the Political Science Department at Tuskegee Institute, was recruited to the campus to serve as Director of the Program and begin work on the formal development of a curriculum for the program. In early years, the Program was given Divisional status [one of four at the time] to maintain its autonomy.
By the 1972-73 academic year, a fully functional African American Studies B. A. degree program was available to students. According to the Baltimore Afro-American [April 14, 1973], this marked the first instance in which the Maryland Council of Higher Education had approved an African American course of study which could lead to an undergraduate B. A. degree. In June, 1975, the department graduated its first class of majors.
By the end of the 1973-74 academic year, Dr. Njaka had left the department, being replaced as Acting Director by Dr. Daphne D. Harrison, who had joined the department from Benedict College in 1972. Dr. Harrison served as Acting Director throughout the 1974-75 academic year while a search was conducted for a permanent Director. That search culminated in the hiring of Dr. Willie Bediako Lamousé-Smith who was a Professor of Sociology and Associate Director of the Program of Eastern African Studies in the Maxwell Graduate School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. By 1977, UMBC had re-organized its academic structure, replacing its divisional system with one of departmental programs all housed within the College of Arts and Sciences. As such, African American Studies lost its Divisional status and became one of 23 [now more than 40] academic departments or programs headed by a department chair or program director.
Because of its dedicated work with students during these early years, the Department received special notice from UMBC’s 1976 Middle States Universities Accreditation Team which indicated that “Several members of the team would like to single out and congratulate the individuals involved and the institution on the leadership, the scholarly interests, the integrity and the distinction of the African American Studies Program. Above all for its care for its students.”
Professor Lamousé-Smith continued to serve as department chair through the early 1980’s. During this time, the Department revamped its curriculum and added many new courses to reflect its coverage of three areas of the Diaspora: Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. It also established several special programs and activities. Included among these were the W. E. B. DuBois Distinguished Lecture Series, a (February) Black History Month Program, an Annual Health Conference and Health Fair, A Model Organization for African Unity, an Annual Spring Theatre Workshop Production, and a Summer Tutorial Enrichment Project for inner-city elementary students.
The Department continued to sponsor many of these activities during the decade of the 1980’s when Dr. Daphne D. Harrison became department chair [1981-1992]. Because of its outreach to students through these programs and activities, the Department routinely garnered special recognition and thanks from students throughout this period. Such personal tributes culminated with the presentation of two notable awards to the Department during the 1990’s. In 1994, Alumni and Friends of UMBC presented the Department with an award for its “Mentoring and Support of African American Students.” And, in 1997, on the occasion of the Department’s 25th anniversary, the Maryland Governor’s Office for Minority Affairs cited the Department, on behalf of the citizens of the State, for its “significant contribution…to higher education as a result of the commitment demonstrated by all associated with (the) Department…[and acknowledged] … great respect, admiration and gratitude for the historical legacy (of the Department) which continues to enrich the lives and experiences of [Maryland] citizens….” On the occasion of this 25th anniversary celebration, the Department announced its renaming to that of Africana Studies, a change reflecting its long-standing coverage of the African Diaspora experience.
Within the past decade, the Department once again received special recognition for its meritorious work with students. In this instance, two former faculty members were singled out for their tireless efforts in helping to enlighten and empower students to become community leaders. For such work, the UMBC Alumni Association as a part of its 2007 “Legends of Excellence” Program cited both Dr. Daphne D. Harrison (retired 1999) and Dr. Acklyn R. Lynch (Chair, 1994-1997; retired 2003) for their “extraordinary individual contributions…(to) the lives of UMBC’s African-American and Latino students over the past 40 years.” These two individuals, along with Drs. Elechukwu Njaka and Willie Lamousé-Smith (retired 2007) are thus largely responsible for the Department’s achievements in carrying forth its 40-year educational mission of service to UMBC and the greater Baltimore community.