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Announcing African American Studies Move to Department Status

May 18, 2021

Dear Saint Louis University community, 

Today, I am pleased to announce that starting in the fall 2021 semester, the African American Studies program will move to full department status. This move marks a historic moment for this program and department, which has existed at the University in some capacity since the 1970s. 

I want to thank Dr. Christopher Tinson, director of the African American Studies program, who since his arrival in 2018 has been steadfast in working towards department status. Dr. Tinson’s position title will move from director to chair. 

At the February 2021 Board of Trustees meeting, Dr. Tinson provided some important historical context of African American Studies both in the United States and here at Saint Louis University. I personally cannot do justice to the amazing portrait he painted of that history, so he has offered to share some of that context below. 

A photo of Christopher Tinson, Ph.D., director of the African American Studies program at SLU.
Dr. Christopher Tinson

“The root of African American Studies at universities around the country started in the wake of the assassination of Dr. King in 1968. These early programs started on the coasts, specifically California and New York, then expanded around the country from there. The early curricula focused on the literature and history of people of African descent, and came to encompass a variety of topics including African history, African literature, African-American literature, literature of the Caribbean, Black Psychology, and other areas where students could study African-American experiences from the ground up. 

“In the early 1970s, under the direction of Dr. Barbara Woods (director from 1977-1999), the first classes to teach African American studies were established at Saint Louis University. Dr. Woods saw an opportunity to pull together a curriculum and request that the University institutionalize it in some way. A certificate program was created within a newly-formed African American Studies Institute, which helped lay the groundwork for the creation of a major. 

“It was not until 2010 that the major in African American Studies was approved at SLU. Much of the credit for this goes to our long-serving director, Dr. Karla Scott, who was in the position for 16 years. Following her leadership, Dr. Stephan Bradley stepped into the role, and upon his departure, Dr. Scott returned while a national search for a permanent chair was launched. That search resulted in my hiring in 2018, and I immediately began to educate myself on the history of this program at SLU so I could build on that and work towards establishing a full department of African American Studies. 

“Arriving at this moment took the alignment of a number of factors that had not been in place previously. Among those factors were: having a point person dedicated to the effort that knows both the history of the program and the inner workings of the university; institutional support from the dean and provost; and a moment in time both regionally and nationally that sheds a light on the importance of our program’s work. That last item is particularly important, and we are seeing it now with hundreds of thousands of people marching in the streets in the wake of George Floyd and countless other people of color who lost their lives before it was their time. 

“Now that we have arrived at this moment, and are seeing the program move to department status, we will become the fourth department of African American Studies among the 27 Jesuit universities, and one of over 350 departments, programs, or certificates in African American Studies across the US. I think this moment speaks to the seriousness of the University’s approach towards intellectual production of the African diaspora, and will help our faculty and students contribute to the intellectual and social aspects of Saint Louis University. It also affords us the opportunity to play a more active role in the educational needs of the greater St. Louis region, partnering with local schools and colleges, and delivering region-wide programming that extends beyond our campus for years and decades to come.”

Additionally, Dr. Jonathan Smith, VP of Diversity and Community Engagement, had the following to say about this moment: 

A photo of Jonathan Smith, Ph.D., vice president for diversity and community engagement.
Dr. Jonathan Smith

“I feel as though I’ve come full circle. The first paycheck I received from SLU came when I was a graduate student at Washington University. Dr. Barbara Woods, then-director of the African American Studies program that had no majors, hired me to teach a Black Literature course during the summer.

I never imagined then that the future would find me as a faculty member in the African American Studies department under the leadership of department chair Chris Tinson. I have had the great fortune to work for every chair and director of African American Studies at Saint Louis University. I am humbled. And I honor and respect and love the work that each of them did to bring this department into being from program to the current moment.” 

I want to congratulate Dr. Tinson, the African American Studies faculty, including VP of Diversity, Dr. Smith, and all the faculty that have been instrumental in bringing this to fruition. This move to department status brings with it a number of opportunities, mainly that the department can now hire their own faculty and allow them to focus on their research, teaching and service within the department itself (most have a joint or secondary appointment with another department currently). 

I look forward to seeing the incredible work of this group of faculty and students becoming an even more integral part of SLU in the coming years. 


Mike Lewis, Ph.D.