What It Means To Study Food At An HBCU

I stare at a photo of seven women. They are presumably Spelman College students, tilling the soil of the Oval, the green space around Giles Hall, the historic building that houses my office. The Spelman archivist dates the photo in the 1890s. The women’s eyes concentrate on the ground. They aren’t smiling. No one recorded their names.

Clad in long skirts, armed with farming tools, the unidentified women grew food as part of their education well before food studies had a name or structure. In this period, it was not uncommon for women’s academic training to include homemaking skills, including growing food. My work as an interdisciplinary professor in anthropology and food studies is part of a long legacy.

I joined the Spelman faculty in 2015 to help build a food studies program that other faculty had been developing for years. I teach black women about food access inequalities, urban agriculture, and the role of race in the food system. What we know as food studies did not exist when Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were founded in the mid-1800s. The role of food in curriculum and campus life, however, was firmly in place. The women in the photo grew food for their own consumption and were likely involved in managing the Spelman College Dairy.
Spelman was not the first HBCU to connect food and academic inquiry. HBCUs and other black educational institutions were beacons in the midst of legally enforced white supremacy and segregation. To provide for the campus and build community, students, especially those attending Southern HBCUs, were expected to show industrial and practical skills alongside their academic training. In other ways, the academic and practical training that students received proved to their white counterparts that they deserved full citizenship. Perhaps the best-known example of this is Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881—the same year Spelman College was founded.
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Source: Southern Foodways Alliance


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