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.