This Black History Month, I’ve dug into the origin stories of African-American STEM societies, and the amazing people who started them. In previous posts we’ve covered groups from the 1895 founding of the National Medical Association (part 1) up to the 1969 establishment of the National Association of Mathematicians (part 2), and started the 1970s with the Association of Black Sociologists. We’re now into the final set, bringing us to 19 all up, with origins spanning over 90 years. Of those, 14 are on Twitter.
Later in the same year as the engineers, 1975, it was the anthropologists’ turn to formalize.
The Association of Black Anthropologists was a child of the turmoil of 1968, too. Ira Harrison reported [PDF] that it was formed when the Caucus of Black Anthropologists broke away from the American Anthropological Association (AAA). The Caucus had evolved after a 1968 session on a black curriculum in anthropology:
Black graduate students in the 60’s sought identifiable Afro-American role models in Anthropology. They were virtually nonexistent in 17 academia prior to the 60’s. Only 13 blacks earned the doctorate in anthropology prior to 1980. Most of these black anthropologists did not attend AAA meetings until recently…The Caucus of Black Anthropologists arose to fill this void at AAA meetings as a protest movement and a child of the 60’s.
Harrison describes the founding group as an “intellectually revolutionary group” of graduate students and junior academics, who wrote in the preamble of their constitution:
It is a known fact that anthropology and anthropologists have identified more with the interests of the colonial powers than with the interests of the colonized people they have studied. Today, the anthropology establishment continues to perceive and to analyze the social realities of these people within the framework of theories which were conceived to justify colonialism and racism. As Black and colonialized anthropologists, it is our duty to provide an organizational framework whereby we will change established approaches, methods and theories, and the relationships between anthropologists and the people they study.
The ABA’s first president was Vera Mae Green. Another pioneering anthropologist, Johnnetta B. Cole, wrote a wonderful obituary after her death in 1982, describing her as “the spiritual force” of the ABA. [PDF] (Note: the portrait in the Facebook post embedded below can take some time to download.)
The National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) was established in April 1977. The roots of this group lie in celebration of achievements and social bonds. It grew out of a series of award banquets and scientific symposia honoring African-American physicists, starting in 1972. Let’s hear about it from one of the group of founders, Ronald E. Mickens: [PDF]
I completed my doctorate in 1968 and with a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship spent the next two years at the Center for Theoretical Physics, MIT. One of the most interesting persons at the Center was James Young, then on leave from Los Alamos National Laboratory, who would soon become Professor of Physics at MIT. In addition to our friendship and mutual respect for each other’s scientific accomplishments, our discussions would often turn to the senior physicists in the black college community who mentored several generations of students who then went on to achieve doctorates in physics. These “elders” served as role models, provided the required intellectual tools for success in graduate school, and gave (when needed) both emotional and financial support to their students. In early 1972, we decided to organize a gathering to honor three persons: Halson Eagleson (Howard University), Donald Edwards (North Carolina A and T College), and John Hunter (Virginia State College)…
At 5:30 p.m., 9 December 1972, approximately sixty friends, colleagues, and former students of the three guests of honor met at the Fisk University Faculty Club House for a pre-dinner social hour. The three awardees were interviewed in a separate room by representatives of the local print and broadcast press. Excerpts of these discussions, along with comments from others in attendance, appeared that night on two local television stations; the next day each of the newspapers published short articles on the event…
The Second National Physics Award Ceremony was held at Howard University on May 1, 1975. The planning committee consisted of Anna Coble and Arthur Thorpe, both of the Howard University Physics Department, and myself. It was decided that the Awards Dinner would be preceded by a full day of formal scientific lectures…Several hundred persons attended the Awards Dinner.
The enthusiasm generated by the Fisk and Howard events led to a Day of Scientific Lectures and Seminars that was held the following year (April 1, 1976) at Morehouse College. The prime organizers were Carl Spight and myself. At the end of the meeting, representatives from Morgan State University volunteered to put on a similar program in 1977. Another important feature of the Morehouse meeting was that many discussions took place on the possibility of establishing some type of national black physics organization. The following are some of the persons who made significant contributions, in the period 1976-77′ to the plans for creating the proposed organization: James Davenport, Warren Henry, Walter Massey, Harry Morrison, Carl Spight, and James Young.
Mickens quotes from the first issue of the new society’s newsletter in 1978:
The Society was inaugurated on Thursday, April 28, 1977 at Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland with interim structures and officers. The general purpose of the Society is to promote the professional well-being of black physicists within the scientific community and within society at large, and to develop and support efforts to increase the opportunities for, and numbers of, Blacks in physics. The Society is not in conflict with either the goals or the mission of the A.P.S. or the A.A.P.T. or any other of the mainstream professional organizations and is not intended to supplant any of them. Rather, the Society expresses the need for an organization in which Blacks play a major role in creating and developing activities and programs themselves for themselves.
Carl Spight was elected the first president, and Shirley Jackson was the first woman elected to the position, in 1983.
A group got the National Association of Black Geologists and Geophysicists off the ground in 1981 in Texas, after particular effort from Curtis Lucas and Mack Jepson:
In Houston, we needed a central location to meet, a willing host, and we also needed to have a figure that everyone knew and respected to get this thing off the ground. We found all of these items at the home of Dr. Mack Gipson, who had been a college professor at Virginia State University. We contacted Dr. Gipson and asked if he would host an Ice Breaker/Planning Session at his home. When we told him what the intent was, he indicated that there had been a lot of conversations about doing this kind of thing in the past. At that point, we indicated to him that we were involved with a group of individuals who were planning to do more than talk about it. He agreed to host the session…
The meeting was a success. There was a room full of geoscience professionals buzzing with ideas, energy and enthusiasm. Dr. Gipson was a central figure along with Mr. Lucas that evening. It became tremendously obvious that this was at the least, a meeting that everyone there had been looking forward to for some time.
The organization’s name was changed to the National Association of Black Geoscientists (NABG) in 2014 [PDF].
The NABG is unusual among this group:
Unlike most black professional scientific organizations, the majority of NABGG’s members work in private industry, primarily with firms active in oil and gas exploration. Consequently, the group was formed primarily to serve as a vehicle for helping minority geologists and geophysicists establish professional relationships with each other and with the companies they worked for, as well as to develop professional standards and practices for members as employees and as entrepreneurs.
The NABG has supported around 200 students with scholarships and work to raise awareness of geoscience as a career opportunity. They have an annual convention, and monthly technical meetings.
19. Academic Surgeons
This group of newly founded organizations ends as it began – in medicine, 94 years later. The Society of Black Academic Surgeons (SBAS) formed in 1989:
The Society of Black Academic Surgeons can trace its origin to a historic meeting in New Orleans, LA in October of 1987. Present at that meeting were Drs. Arthur Fleming, Claude Organ, Onye Akwari, Eddie Hoover, and Steve Aichele of Davis and Geck. This meeting was arranged to address the role of African-American surgeons in academic surgery. It was abundantly clear that few blacks were involved in academic surgery, there was no organized network of African-American academic surgeons, few young surgeons pursing academic careers received tenure, and graduates from surgery residency programs other than Meharry or Howard could not easily identify African-American surgeons role models to inspire them to pursue academic careers.
At this inaugural meeting an organization dedicated to promoting more active participation in academic surgery among African-Americans was born.
The SBAS supports scholarship, career development, and community, and advocates for underrepresented minority surgeons and quality healthcare for underserved populations.
This is the last of a 4-part series for Black History Month 2019:
The image of the inscribed, unidentified skull is from Wellcome Images.
I cropped and saved in black and white the Wikimedia Commons photo of John Carlos’ and Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the ceremony to receive their medals at the 1968 Olympics.