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Dennard and guest
Dorothy Spruill Redford (right), author of “Somerset Homecoming: Recovering a Lost Heritage,” visited students in the Introduction to African and African Studies course, part of the new degree program in African and African American Studies. Redford’s book documents the African American experience at Somerset Place, a plantation in eastern North Carolina. The program’s director, David Dennard (left), invites lecturers with varying areas of expertise to help expand students’ perspectives. (Photo by Marc J. Kawanishi)

New B.A. To Broaden Horizons

By Joy Holster

A new undergraduate bachelor of arts degree program introduced this fall at East Carolina University focuses on the life, history and experiences of Africa and people of African descent.

ECU professor Dr. David Dennard directs the new program, which offers both a major and a minor in African and African American Studies.

Housed in the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, the program is interdisciplinary, drawing on ECU’s existing courses and faculty experts from fields such as liberal arts, education, physical and social sciences, fine and performing arts, health science, and communication.

Harriot College of Arts and Sciences Dean Alan White underscored the college’s strong support for the program, while at the same time noting that it is a “university-wide initiative that goes well beyond the scope of this one college.”

The program’s objectives dovetail with university aspirations to expand students’ awareness of the world’s diversity and prepare them for a global environment. “These studies will expose our students to the larger world that’s waiting for them,” Dennard said. The program “broadens opportunities for students to understand the life, culture and history of the folk they will be working with and competing against in the global village.”

Dennard recommends the introductory course – Introduction to African and African American Studies – for all students, not just AAAS majors and minors. He said the course will help students view the world from a broader perspective, which will make them better sociologists, political scientists, journalists, historians, or educators. Students in any area of study could benefit.

Students are encouraged also to consider AAAS as part of a double major. Pairing the AAAS degree with another area of study will make students more employable, Dennard said. “The need is out there,” he said, “for graduates with a global perspective, who understand the history and culture of a population dispersed across America.” Along with opportunities to do graduate work, Dennard anticipates employment opportunities for graduates in museums and historic sites, in social work or criminal justice, in community development and with foreign diplomatic services.

ECU is a logical geographic choice for an African and African American studies program, Dennard said. “We are the oldest region in the state, with the largest concentration of African Americans living here from the 17th to the 19th century. That offers extensive possibilities – and a definite need – for more detailed research,” he said.

More research is needed to provide documentation of the African American presence and experience during eastern North Carolina’s colonial and antebellum periods, he said.  

For example, at New Bern’s Tryon Palace, docents often present tourists with details on the white inhabitants of the area, but little on the culture and experiences of the enslaved and free blacks who also lived in the city. “We need to change that paradigm,” Dennard said.  “When we’re talking about the history of an area, we need to talk about the experiences of all groups ­– blacks, whites, and others – using detailed, solid information.”

Dennard said more study should be done on African American participation in maritime activities, in local civil rights activities, and specifically, on the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot or coup d’etat. More attention must be paid to African American women’s role in history as well, he said, because African American studies have been predominantly male-centered.

Studies in African and African American history grew out of the 1960s, when the first African Americans enrolled in historically white universities. That population began demanding courses relevant to their own history, along with resources applied toward improving the larger community beyond the university. From that initial urge to create more hospitable places for African Americans in the university grew knowledge and solid academics, Dennard said. With the advent of Internet technology, increased interaction among universities with existing programs generated more interest, more knowledge, and greater collaboration.

East Carolina’s program is one of approximately 312 African studies programs in the nation, one of only nine programs in North Carolina, and one of five programs offered in the UNC system. Other UNC schools offering the degree are UNC – Chapel Hill, UNC – Greensboro, UNC – Charlotte and NCSU. In the United States, about ten universities offer doctoral programs in African studies and approximately 24 to 30 offer master’s degrees.

Southern universities and states are somewhat lagging behind other regions in initiating the programs, Dennard said, despite an often larger percentage of African Americans in Southern state populations. He noted that the state of California, with a population that is 7.4 percent African American, has 60 African American studies programs. North Carolina – with a 22.1 percent African American population – has only nine such programs.

The UNC General Administration approved ECU’s new program in February 2007, following a two-year development process. The first course was offered in August 2007, with 55 students enrolled.

“The first course filled up very quickly, as we predicted,” White said. “That demonstrates a strong demand from students for this area of study.”

This page originally appeared in the Dec. 7, 2007 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at