Announcement of Ph.D. in Education Dissertation Defense Molly E. O’Connor: “Across Oceans and Campuses: HBCU Presidents and the Search for Democratic Ideas Abroad in the Early-Mid 20th Century”
Because the legacies of America’s racial apartheid continue to shape the educational and political landscape today, we must examine how American institutions of higher education have historically shaped students’ ideas about citizenship, democracy, and equality. Current scholarship chronicles the impact of Black internationalism on domestic affairs in political and religious arenas—but it leaves out the ways in which Black institutions of higher education and its leaders participated in the international transmission of alternative political ideas and were co-creators in the making of a global, African diasporic identity. In this dissertation, I analyze the the ideas of Mordecai Johnson of Howard University, Benjamin Mays of Morehouse College, and Willa Player of Bennett College, who were deeply influenced by international, anticolonial, and non-violence movements. I argue that their global travels, ideas, and networks ultimately influenced their leadership of Black colleges. The resulting global vision was critical to the role college presidents and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) played in dismantling Jim Crow.
As the realization of democratic ideals continues to be illusive for many groups of Americans, and the world becomes increasingly globalized, this research provides practical arguments for educational leaders who can think beyond their own context and toward a better future for their students. In addition to adding education to the broader conversation on Black internationalism and bringing insights about Black internationalism to analyses of higher education, this work challenges colleges and universities to take notice of the key role that international experiences play in the curriculum—and the high stakes consequences of parochialism. As educational institutions go about answering the question of how to incorporate intellectual and active social justice education into their curriculum, this dissertation compels administrators to reflect practically on (1) how leaders in higher education might be aware of and use their influence, (2) how to expand access to international opportunities for students on campus, and (3) how to incorporate more global perspectives in university academic departments.
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