Ahead of its 2025 centennial celebration, Xavier University of Louisiana—the nation’s Catholic HBCU—has added its first-ever Black studies major, one of the few such programs at a historically Black college or university.
The school announced the news publicly on Tuesday, following years of development and a soft launch of select courses for the Fall 2023 semester. The program’s official title is African American Diaspora Studies (AADS), which has been a minor at the school for decades.
“Today, it is evident that students are not receiving knowledge [about Black history] as school systems tend to remove the African-American diasporic experience from history and learning. Students are entering HBCUs with little to no knowledge of the value and contributions of the diaspora,” said Dr. Sharlene Sinegal-DeCuir, the inaugural chair of the new AADS major.
“After teaching African American History for 15 years at Xavier, I clearly saw the need to expand the AADS minor into a major. Our students are eager to learn more about their history.”
Sinegal-DeCuir, herself a XULA alum and a Black Catholic, was inspired by her time taking courses in the minor in the late 1990s. She returned to teach at the school a decade later, becoming an associate professor of history.
When the AADS major was first announced in 2020, with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Sinegal-DeCuir noted that she wanted to give students a fuller experience of diasporic studies.
“[It’s] going to be different than what we teach now because it’s going to dive deeper into a lot of issues, and not just the issues that we face as African Americans but the issues globally that people of color are facing,” she said.
The university noted that the launch of the program was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced schools around the world to go virtual for the better part of two academic years. XULA was no exception, and Sinegal-DeCuir used the time to develop the courses for the program and its planned interdisciplinary approach.
The school is best known for its STEM programs, producing more Black doctors than any other in the United States, and has been quickly expanding its program and partnership opportunities in the field. The new AADS major will be part of that story, created so that it can easily be paired as a double major. Its focus areas will include New Social Justice Movements, Black Health Disparities, Decolonial Studies, and Transatlantic Blackness.
The new program comes at a time of crossroads in American education, with many GOP-led states cutting funding for minority-focused history education, including at colleges and universities. In Louisiana, Republican state legislators sought earlier this year to force all public schools to submit reports on all spending related to DEI and “critical race theory,” among other areas.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June against affirmative action in higher education, XULA—a private institution—was one of several schools to commit to continued minority representation and support for students of color on its campus.
Even so, XULA is now one of only a handful of HCBUs to have a Black studies major/department, with most passing on such programs since the Black Studies Movement of the late 20th century due to funding shortfalls, concerns over Black militancy, and a perceived need to preserve White donor interests. Catholic institutions, too, have lagged behind in the field, with XULA being the first to announce a new Black studies program in years.
"Xavier has always embraced diversity and inclusivity as core values and is committed to expanding programs that create more opportunities for Xavierites,” said Dr. Marguerite Giguette, XULA’s interim provost and senior vice president of academic affairs.
The university was founded by St. Katharine Drexel in 1925 to educate Black students shut out of Catholic higher education, and will soon celebrate 100 years of service. Sinegal-Decuir says the new program will emphasize how, as XULA itself demonstrates, Black history is indispensable to the nation’s story.
“The African-American experience is a part of the American experience, and if you’re teaching it in a way where you are teaching the facts, then the facts are going to speak for themselves. The facts will allow our students to make connections between the past and our future,” she said.
“This is why a program like this, at an HBCU, is needed.”
Following the trial run this semester, the new AADS program at XULA will be available for full enrollment as a major in spring 2024.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.
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