How Coretta Scott King led one Michigan State professor to a lifetime achievement award: BTN LiveBIG
As the 2017 recipient of the Southern Historical Association’s John Hope Franklin Lifetime Achievement Award, Dr. Darlene Clark Hine has found herself honored in the name of a man whose work was a seminal influence on hers.
“I was inspired by his history of African-Americans across the decades: From Slavery To Freedom,” she said. “It’s almost akin to a bible and for a decade it was the only major textbook that we had at our disposal.”
Winner of a 2013 National Humanities Medal and the author or editor of several definitive works about the histories of black women in the United States, Dr. Hine returned to Michigan State University as its John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of History in 2016 after a previous run in the same title from 1987 to 2004.
In between her times at MSU, she spent 12 years as Northwestern University’s Board of Trustees Professor of African American Studies and History in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and chair of its African-American Studies Department for three years.
Despite her long and distinguished career, Dr. Hine felt some trepidation about following in the footsteps of someone whose scholarship preceded hers. Forty years after reading From Slavery To Freedom, Dr. Hine was asked to write her own textbook of African-American history, The African-American Odyssey, but was nervous about how Franklin might receive it.
She needn’t have worried.
“A couple months later, after the book came out, I got a greeting card from John Hope Franklin, and he said ‘Congratulations…I have read it, and the scholarship in it is sound.’ I was almost in tears.”
Having broken new ground in the often-overlooked history of black womens’ roles in the history of the United States, particularly within social and racial justice movements, Dr. Hine talked to LiveBIG about why her subjects don’t often receive their due, how Coretta Scott King helped inspire her and why she returned to Michigan State in pursuit of her work.
LiveBIG: The Southern Historical Association says when it comes to history they want to take an investigative rather than a memorial approach. Is that true of your work as well?
Dr. Darlene Clark Hine: Yes. One of the reasons why this award means so much to me is that most of my career was focused on writing the history of black women in America, and initially there was quite a pushback to that idea. There were some people – scholars – that were thinking “You’re taking the attention away from the truly important actors in the historical past” and that black women were not sufficiently important as to warrant scholarly investigation.
BTN LiveBIG: Are there specific moments or people, and I’m specifically thinking about black women here, that have been forgotten?
Dr. Hine: Well, one of the books that I’m very proud of, it’s called Black Women in White, and it’s a history of black women in the nursing profession and I focus the second half of the book on the struggles that black women nurses – led by Mabel Staupers – had to engage in, in order to be accepted into the armed forces nurses corps during World War II. And this was a really significant event in the history of African-American women and their relationship with the military, but initially when I started talking about black women in nursing a lot of people – colleagues – did not did not think that was of sufficient importance because they’re nurses.
BTN LiveBIG: You’ve said people and colleagues were giving you pushback on focusing on the stories of black women. I’m curious: were most of these colleagues men?
Dr. Hine: Oh, absolutely. [Laughs] When you combine the gender bias with the race bias you have a situation where black women are totally off the landscape of what constitutes important historical scholarship.
BTN LiveBIG: We’ve seen a lot of recent activism and protests led by women. It’s looked at, in many cases, that these are white women who seem to be leading, but the templates they’re following were started by black women.
Dr. Hine: Exactly. I would have to go into a very extended conversation with you about this. Black women had their own feminist movement going on since the end of the Civil War pushing for the rights for education, for voting, for healthcare, for safety. And then the late 1890s into the turn of the 20th century black women were migrating out of the south in large numbers and going to these urban centers and establishing businesses and schools, training schools if you will, and doing all kinds of things, pushing for education and advanced training.
I mean, their activism has been more pronounced than just about any other group of women, but we haven’t explored it or shed light on them because of the combination of racism and sexism and colorism, if you will. And also class.
BTN LiveBIG: Is there somebody in particular that you look to as a model of social change?
Dr. Hine: This might surprise you. The person that I listened to, who has inspired me and who gave me my marching orders, so to speak, was Coretta Scott King.
I was here in my office one day at Michigan State back in the early 1990s and I was given the message that Coretta Scott King wanted to talk to me, essentially wanted me to come to Atlanta to The King Center because she had something to say to me.
And so, thus summoned, I got on a plane, and I flew down to Atlanta and I met with her. I [asked] “Why did you send for me? Why did you ask me to come?” And she said, “I want you to make sure to write the history of black women in the Civil Rights Movement and put them in the history books ’cause otherwise they will be forgotten and ignored.”
After that conversation – it was very, very brief – I decided to change my focus and I became engaged with a massive project that resulted in the publication of [Black Women in America], a three-volume work.
BTN LiveBIG: Do you have any thoughts on the recent reckoning on the nature of Southern identity, especially around Confederate monuments?
Dr. Hine: I’ve been talking to a lot of black women who are very concerned about the fact there are no monuments, or very few monuments, that reflect the contributions of black women, so the absence of monuments can be just as distorting, in a way, as the creation of monuments and the distortion of the narrative.
BTN LiveBIG: For people who are new to this subject, which of your works should they start with?
Dr. Hine: For somebody who is interested in the general history of African-American women that was written for a broader audience, not just an academic group, I would recommend a book that I co-wrote with Kathleen Thompson called A Shining Thread of Hope.
BTN LiveBIG: You’ve now spent 18 years at Michigan State in your career. What it is about Michigan State that is so welcoming for the kind of work that you’re doing?
Dr. Hine: I love Michigan State University. I love the fact that it is a land grant institution. I love the fact that it was one of the first of the [non-historically-black-college] institutions to have a black man as president. People come here and then take their training back to Africa, to China, to India, I mean Michigan State is the perfect model of what a national and international university should be. And if I’m praising Michigan State too much I’m guilty, okay? [Laughs] Because I really do value and appreciate its mission and its outreach.
This interview was condensed and edited.