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18 Financial Viability of Professional Organizations

Sylvia Cyrus Albritton, Association for the Study of African American Life and History

Black Studies organizations play a crucial role in the institu­tion­alization of the field. They serve several functions vital to the suc­cess of any field. Among those functions are: hosting con­ferences, pub­lishing scholarly journals, linking scholars to primary and sec­ond­ary teachers, and linking scholars to the public.

While Black Studies organizations play a critical role in the field, their financial viability is always tenuous, especially the more they emphasize academics. No better case can be found than the his­tory of ASALH.

In the late 1960s, as student protests brought Black Studies to pre­dominately white campuses, ASALH enjoyed a renaissance by serv­ing the rising Black Studies Movement. In 1965, Charles Wes­ley re­tired from Central State in Ohio and became the full-time, un­paid executive director. Taking advantage of the rise of the modern Black Studies Movement, Wesley republished com­plete runs of the Jour­nal of Negro History and sold them to libraries and sought and re­ceived outside funding from foundations, in­clud­ing a large grant from the Ford Foundation. As young scholars en­tered graduate pro­grams and received their degrees, ASALH con­ferences grew, av­e­rag­ing roughly 2,000 for several years.

Despite the growth, ASALH began to struggle financially again by the mid-1970s. The Journal of Negro History no longer kept a reg­ular publishing schedule, driving its institutional subscriber list from over 12,000 to less than 400 by the year 2000. The annual meet­ings declined in registration, reaching a low of 250 in 2002. By the late 1990s, the conferences were running large deficits. The mem­bership fell to fewer than 500, most of whom were life mem­bers. ASALH stayed alive by selling capital assets.

Since 2003, ASALH has rebuilt itself and it is financially in the black for the first time in over thirty years. The Journal of African American History, edited by V. P. Franklin, is published on time. In­sti­tu­tional memberships to the journal are stable at over 900 a year. The membership is again over 2,000. The conferences have grown by 25 percent a year, and we anticipate over 1,000 registrants this year when we meet in Atlanta.

Though scholars have started returning to the conference and renewing their memberships, ASALH has been revitalized not by appealing to scholars, and certainly our financial stability is not a result of membership dues. ASALH is on the mend because we have returned to our origins—serving teachers and the general public. In 1926, when Woodson established Negro History Week, he trans­form­ed the organization from one with a mission to in­form the ed­u­cat­ed elite to one that sought to educate the public about the role of people of African descent in the history of mankind. The public responded, and teachers and laypeople be­came the primary sup­port­ers of the association. Woodson created prod­ucts to serve the needs of teachers, who were looking for ma­ter­ials on Black history to teach their students. In 1937, he started the Negro History Bul­le­tin, which aimed at providing them ma­terials to aid them in teach­ing. Shortly after he started Negro History Week, the demand for Black history clubs led him to pro­mote the creation of branches. The public responded to the as­so­ci­ation’s efforts by joining ASALH and donating their funds to the cause. The association was fi­nan­cially strapped since the death of Carter G. Woodson in 1950. Wood­son had made up the as­sociation’s deficits via donations from his for-profit corporation, Associated Publishers. Without the funds, without the dedicated lead­ership driven by service rather than careerism, the association slow­ly declined until the renewed phil­anthropic interests of the late 1960s.

Charles Wesley understood that for the association to thrive, it would have to find revenue outside of that provided by mem­ber­ship dues and the foundations. He and a series of executive di­rec­tors sought to gain those resources via the Associated Pub­lish­ers, but were never able to put the publishing house on a sound fi­nan­cial footing. Yet over the years, the rising academics in the or­ga­n­i­zation emphasized the academic functions of the or­gan­i­za­tion, and a rift developed between the scholars and the laypeo­ple. Ironically, when the academics ceased to join and attend the con­ferences, it was the laypeople, operating through branch­es, who kept ASALH alive.

Over the past two years, we have taken strides to appeal to our entire constituency—teachers, the history conscious public, as well as academics. Towards that end, we have hired a Director of Mem­bership Services, whose focus is on starting new branches and seeking out teachers for memberships. We have changed the for­mat of the Black History Bulletin. Originally established as a jour­nal for teachers, it became a publishing place for scholarly ar­ti­cles writ­ten by historians. It is now a journal for teachers by teach­ers, edited by scholars who specialize in teacher training. We have cre­ated a Black history magazine, a general interest pub­li­ca­tion, to reach the pub­lic. At our convention, we have incorporated a day for youth, which brings in students from our host city to learn lead­ership skills by focusing on Black history. We have also ex­pand­ed and en­hanced our teachers’ workshop. Additionally, we have started pro­gram­ming with our branches in mind.

Already the shift in emphasis to teachers and the public has paid off. Since 2002, our annual convention has grown at a pace of approximately 50 percent a year. This year in Atlanta we expect reg­is­tra­tion to reach between 1,200 and 1,500. More importantly, our con­ven­tion now produces a positive revenue stream that pays a sig­nif­i­cant percent of our staff cost. The academic sessions have grown from thirty-five to ninety, but the real growth has come from the teach­ers’ work­shops and youth activities. Sponsors are willing to un­der­write the cost of events for teachers and youth much more of­ten than they are willing to pay for academic development.

Whereas, ASALH has struggled to gain institutional mem­ber­ships from both Black Studies and History departments and has had only modest success in selling journal subscriptions to uni­ver­si­ty li­brar­ies, we have had much greater success with public schools. Maryland is taking steps to provide institutional member­ships for all the public schools in the state. With the so-called “No Child Left Behind Pol­icy,” we have found that corporations are concerned about the decline of the social sciences and have received fund­ing to address this problem by providing institutional memberships to schools.

Another source of revenue over expenses for ASALH comes from our annual convention, where the academic program is seen as only one of the major features of the conference. Since 2003, ASALH has held a Youth Day, an outreach program for teenagers in our host city. Since 2004, ASALH has placed a greater emphasis on teach­er workshops. These two activities account for bringing the an­nual conference a positive revenue flow. Sponsors are wil­ling to do­nate funds for children to learn history and to train teachers to teach them. Very few philanthropists are willing to assist in help­ing scholars develop their careers.

In the last two years, ASALH’s major grants have come from funding sources not connected to the tradition of scholarship and service to the academy. Indeed, they are interested in ASALH’s de­vel­opment of its traditional mission—service to teachers and the pub­lic at large. Farmers Insurance has partnered with ASALH and de­vel­oped a multimedia DVD—Freedom Song—that comes with print­ed lesson plans for teachers for use in primary and sec­ond­ary schools. The relationship continues, and we expect it to ex­pand to more efforts to reach teachers and the Black com­mu­ni­ty. Our ef­forts to bring Black history to the public have resulted in ASALH’s re­ceiv­ing a major grant from Wachovia to redevelop our Black His­tory product line for the Black community at large and fur­ther ex­tend our efforts at serving teachers.

Historically, ASALH has played a vital role in the insti­tu­tion­al­i­za­tion of Black Studies and it has every intention of continuing to do so. Without the Journal of African American History (JAAH) and with­out the academic program at our annual convention, Black history in the academy would be seriously hampered. We are well aware that when our journal was published irregularly, careers were af­fect­ed and the field was largely adrift. Young scholars in history lack­ed a critical place to publish. When our conventions dwindled in the number of participants, the opportunity to debate the past and the direction of Black Studies was affected.

Yet there must be a recognition that the membership dues of scholars—at least at the rate they can afford to pay—are not sufficient to make for a vibrant institution, as the history of ASALH shows. It suggests that there is a need for philanthropy concerned about Black Studies to assist in underwriting the cost of academic endeavors. The JAAH is published regularly only because of the sacrifices of our editor, V. P. Franklin. He works for a pittance, and he has only one assistant. If ASALH had to replace V. P. Franklin to­day with a scholar of comparable standing, we would have to dou­ble the editor’s stipend, pay tuition remission and stipends for at least two graduate students, and hire at least one associate ed­i­tor.

Our success at attracting high school, college, and graduate stu­dents is a development in which we take great pride and we con­sider it vital to developing scholars. Indeed, young scholars find our conference the perfect place to be launched into the ac­a­­demic world, and every year we hold sessions on professional de­vel­op­ment. Established originally with funds from the Ford Foun­da­tion, our essay contest continues for undergraduates and grad­uate stu­dents.

Yet, the cost of nurturing young scholars is great. With stu­dent memberships at $20 and student conference registration at $25, ASALH loses money on each student member. Indeed, $20 does not even pay for the per-unit cost of the journal, not to men­tion the other publications and mailings. Since the original grant, the essay contest receives some sponsorship from time to time, but we often must fund it with our own resources. Funding that de­frays the cost of student membership and assists them in con­ven­tion attendance would go a long way in assuring the future of Black Studies.

Without funding from foundations that historically have val­ued scholarship, ASALH will continue its core mission of pro­mot­ing and advancing scholarship and scholars. Yet financial viability will dic­tate that the organization give greater attention to teach­ers, youth, and the general public — areas valued by corporate fund­ing sources. Without funding, the production of new knowl­edge will undoubtedly take a back seat to disseminating existing knowl­edge to the public.


Financial Viability of Professional Organizations Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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