The month of February is dedicated to celebrating the history of African Americans. But the focus is often on influential African Americans throughout the world and across the years, ignoring the accomplishment of Grambling State alumni.
In 1996, Dr. Lizzie White, a native of Jonesboro, became the first African American professor at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston.
White received her bachelor’s degree in English in 1966 from what was then Grambling College; her master’s in 1973 from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches; and her doctoral degree from Northeast Louisiana University, now the University of Louisiana-Monroe, in 1986.
White started her career at Tech in 1973 but was promoted to the rank of professor in September 1996 by Tech President Daniel Reneau. White credits her department chair, Robert Snyder, for helping her realize her impact.
“After a couple days of teaching he let me know I was ‘breaking a lot of ice'” said White.
“That’s when I realized what a difference I was making, teaching in classrooms that had never had African Americans in them.”
White became one of the most influential and effective professors at Tech, gaining respect in her field, as well as in the classroom. She served as editor for the newsletter of the Louisiana Association for College Composition, “Active Voice” for eight years.
Impressed with her knowledge and accomplishments, her students would often ask her what school she attended, to which she would reply, “Grambling”. White’s career changed both student and faculty perspectives on African American teachers and the quality of an HBCU education.
“Here you are being this effective and you’re from Grambling,” said White.
In 1996, Dr. White taught and established the first African American literature course at Tech. The class referred to as “English 475: Special Topics” started with 20 students, 16 of whom were African American students; the other four were white students. It was one of the first times the African American minority was the majority in a Tech classroom.
Being the only black professor, White felt obligated to dispel the myth that there was not enough quality work done by black authors to support a class. That year the Norton Anthology of African American Literature was released, making it the perfect time to implement the class.
“I felt there were great books by African Americans that other cultures and races needed to know about,” said White.
On March 4, 1997, White recommended African American literature as a permanent part of the English Department’s curriculum, stating that it would not only “enhance the diversity in the literature offerings but also help to make Tech competitive with higher education institutions in the state.”
Today, thanks to the efforts put forth by Dr. White, African American literature is a required course at Tech for English undergraduates.