Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Lucy Diggs Slowe (1883-1937)
MSA SC 3520-15532

Biography:

"Education must fit...(African-American) women, as it must fit all women, for the highest development of their own gifts; but, whatever those gifts, they will not be able to exercise them unless they understand the world they live in and are prepared to make their contribution to it."
-Lucy Diggs Slowe1

Lucy Diggs Slowe was an inspiration to and an advocate in the field of African-American women's higher education. She worked tirelessly to expand and increase the opportunities available to women who sought college degrees. Slowe argued that women had a right to earn a college education so that they could become independent and self-determining individuals. This was a rather radical belief in a time where many still believed that women's responsibilities were limited to the household. Lucy Diggs Slowe was a pioneer in African-American women's higher education, and her efforts helped improve the lives of countless women of her time.

Lucy Diggs Slowe was born July 4, 1883, in Berryville, Clarke County, Virginia to Henry and Fannie Slowe.2 She was the youngest of seven children and, when she was six years old, lost both of her parents.3 Slowe was then raised by her aunt, Martha Price, in Lexington, Virginia, who later moved the family to Baltimore, Maryland, so that her niece could receive a formal education.4 She graduated from the Colored High School in 1904 as the Salutatorian, and received an academic scholarship for the fall to the all black Howard University.5

Slowe immediately became involved with Howard University's extracurricular activities, foreshadowing the brave and industrious career that lay ahead of her. She was Vice President and Secretary of the Alpha Phi Literary Society, President of the Women's Tennis Club, and co-founder and the first President of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first sorority for African-American Women.6 Alpha Kappa Alpha still exists today, recruiting students of high academic standards as well as those who possess the leadership qualities Slowe would work so hard to promote throughout her life. She graduated from the university in 1908 with a degree in English, and was valedictorian of her graduating class.7

After graduation, Slowe accepted a teaching position at a Baltimore high school.8 She continued with her education as well, and, in 1915, received her Master's degree in English from Columbia University.9 At this time she also studied the emerging field of Student Personnel (known today as School Administrative Studies) at the Teacher's College at Columbia, and accepted another teaching position at a Washington, D.C. high school.10 Slowe also maintained her athletic ability at this time. In 1917, she won the Women's Singles at the first American Tennis Assoication Championship, an organization formed to allow African-Americans to compete professionally in tennis.11 By 1919, she was offered the job of principal for the first junior high school for African-Americans in Washington, D.C., a position she accepted and performed honorably and intelligently.12 It was then that she gained the administrative experience she would rely upon for the rest of her career.

Slowe's big break came when, in 1922, she was hired as a Professor of English at Howard University, her alma mater, and was almost simultaneously appointed Dean of Women at the University; she was the first African-American woman to hold this position.13 It was during her tenure at Howard University that she made her most significant contributions to society and history. Nearly right after her appointment to this position, Slowe was made President of the National Association of College Women (NACW), which, under her direction, aimed at improving academic and living standards as well as provide leadership opportunities for African-American women on campus.14Moreover, Slowe protested the exclusion of women from university policy-making activities, salary discrimination based on gender, and the 'appropriateness' of women's education.15 Slowe was relentless in pursuing equality in higher education for the women at Howard University and abroad, and refused to allow anyone to derail her goals.

The concept of self-determination was an extremely important idea held by Slowe. She believed that the role of women was changing, and if women were to keep up they would need to learn how to live independently and intelligently. In an article Slowe wrote in The Journal of Negro Education she asserted, "Negro women...must be prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship if they are to discharge their duties to the government under which they live, and if they are to be capable of watching their own interests, and of using their ballot in preserving and promoting these interests."16 Slowe wanted women to be able to live and think for themselves, and she saw college as the medium in which to inspire political and social activism among women.

In addition to her work with the NACW, Slowe was actively involved in several other organizations. She co-founded the Association of Deans of Women and Advisers to Girls in Negro Schools as well as the National Council of Negro Women.17 She was also among the first African-Americans to become a member of the following organizations:
    The American Association of University Women
    The National Association for Women Deans (now the National Association for Women in Education)
    (Note: She was the first African-American to publicly address this group during a 1931 national meeting)
    The Young Women's Christian Association
    The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom18
Slowe also created the Women Student's League as a measure to help all of the female students at Howard University become more active in campus policy-making and leadership roles.19

Another major goal Slowe fought hard for was gender equality within the African-American race.20 She was able to get three female residence halls built in 1931 so women could live on campus at Howard University. She also replaced the antiquated female chaperone system with 'mentors,' who helped navigate female freshmen through their first year of university study.21

As much as she achieved, Slowe still fought an overwhelming amount of resistance during her later tenure at Howard University. She especially had trouble with the President of the University, Mordecai Johnson, who was extremely opposed towards Slowe's liberal attitude of women.22 During an incident in which Slowe attempted to remove a professor accused of sexual harassment by some of his female students, Slowe faced such strong resistance from President Johnson that she wrote, "...I felt that even if I recommended that Professor Mills should be retained, the President ought not to agree with it."23

From the time of this incident forward, Slowe was forced to fight an uphill battle with the President of Howard University over increasing the quality of women's education there. She would continue to fight for the rest of her life for these women. But, in the fall of 1937, she would have to hand the fight over to her successors when she passed away from kidney failure.24 Her service to the women of Howard University was inestimable, and a year after her death a memorial was held for her, where some of the most famous female crusaders of higher education for women gathered to honor Lucy Slowe's memory and legacy.25

Lucy Diggs Slowe was a revolutionary figure in the field of women's higher education. Her ideas of independence and self-government for women were radical for the time in which she lived. And, while Slowe would not see the nationalization of the ideologies she worked so hard to promote in her lifetime, she was a catalyst and inspiration for later generations of African-American women to stand up for their independence. Her contributions were immeasurable, and she will remain a key historical figure for the years to come.
 

Written By Archival Intern Emily J. Steedman, B.A. History, A.A. Liberal Arts & Sciences
 
 

ENDNOTES:
1. Lucy D. Slowe, “Higher Education of Negro Women,” The Journal of Negro Education 2, No. 3 (July 1933): 358, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2292205 (Accessed June13, 2011). Return to text
2. "Clark County, Virginia Births, 1878-96,"Ancestry.com, http://search.ancestry.com/cgibin/sse.dll?rank=1&new=1&MSAV=0&msT=1&gss=angsg&gsfn=lucy+diggs+slowe&mswpn__ftp=Berryville%2c+Clarke%2c+Virg
inia%2c+USA&mswpn=23158&mswpn_PIfno=823158&msbdy=1883&msdpn__ftp=1937&msfng0=Henry&msfns0=Slowe&uid=bil&pcat=ROOT_
CATEGORY&h=2126&recoff=1+2+31&db=clarkeva1878&ndiv=1 (Accessed June 13, 2001). Return to text
3. Karen Anderson and Lucy Diggs Slower, “From ‘Brickbats and Roses’: Lucy Diggs Slowe, 1883-1937,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 22, No. 1 / 2 (Spring-Summer 1994): 134, http://www.jstor.com/stable/40003789 (Accessed June 10, 2011). Return to text
4. Ibid., 134. Return to text
5. Linda M. Perkins, “Lucy Diggs Slowe: Champion of the Self-Determination of African American Women in Higher Education,” The Journal of Negro History 81, No. 1 / 4 (Winter-Autumn 1996): 90, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2717610 (Accessed June 13, 2011). Return to text
6. Ibid., 90, and Patricia Bell-Scott, "To Keep My Self-Respect: Dean Lucy Diggs Slowe's 1927 Memorandum on the Sexual Harassment of Black Women," National Women's Studies Association Journal 8, No. 2 (Summer 1997): 71, Academic Search Premier EBSCOhost (Accessed June 9, 2011). Return to text
7. Perkins, "Lucy Diggs Slowe," 90. Return to text
8. Anderson and Slower, "From 'Brickbats and Roses,'" 135. Return to text
9. Ibid., 135. Return to text
10. Ibid., 135. Return to text
11. "Championship: Past Champions," American Tennis Association, http://www.americantennisassociation.org/championship/past_champions.php (Accessed June 16, 2011). Return to text
12. Anderson and Slower, "From 'Brickbats and Roses,'" 135. Return to text
13. Perkins, "Lucy Diggs Slowe," 90. Return to text
14. Ibid., 91. Return to text
15. Bell-Scott, "To Keep My Self-Respect," 71. Return to text
16. Slowe, "Higher Education," 354. Return to text
17. Bell-Scott, "To Keep My Self-Respect," 71. Return to text
18. Ibid., 71 and Perkins, "Lucy Diggs Slowe," 95. Return to text
19. Perkins, "Lucy Diggs Slowe," 93. Return to text
20. Ibid., 92. Return to text
21. Ibid., 92, 94. Return to text
22. Ibid., 96. Return to text
23. Bell-Scott, "To Keep My Self-Respect," 73-4. Return to text
24. Perkins, "Lucy Diggs Slowe," 99. Return to text
25. “College Women Honor Memory of Dean Slowe,” Afro-American, April 30, 1938. Return to text
 
 

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