2021 Letitia Woods Brown Book Prize for the best book or anthology in African American women’s history
The Letitia Woods Brown Prize is awarded annually by ABWH. The competition is open to all books and anthologies concerning African American women’s history published between June 1, 2020, and May 30, 2021, including those written by members and non-members of ABWH. Winners will be notified by September, and they will be honored in October at an ABWH virtual event.
To nominate a book or anthology, please email the Book Prize Committee at letitiawoodsbrownbookprize@
2021 Letitia Woods Brown Article Prize for the best article in African American women’s history
The Letitia Woods Brown Article Prize is awarded annually by ABWH. The competition is open to all articles concerning African American women’s history published between June 1, 2020, and May 30, 2021, including those written by members and non-members of ABWH. Winners will be notified by September, and they will be honored in October at an ABWH virtual event.
To nominate an article, please email a PDF copy of the complete article along with a letter of nomination to the Article Prize Committee at letitiawoodsbrownarticlepr
See a list of all ABWH awards here.
Letitia Woods Brown (1915-1976)
by Ida E. Jones, Ph.D.
“Something for me, my family, the race and mankind” – Letitia Woods Brown, 1915-1976
Letitia Woods was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on October 24, 1915, to Evadne Adams and Matthew Woods. She was the middle of three sisters. The Woods family had a long history in education. Her maternal great-grandfather Lewis Adams, one of the conceivers and founders of Tuskegee Institute. Her parents Evadne and Matthew were both instructors at Tuskegee. Her life revolved around the intellectual pursuits of student life at Tuskegee, yet she vowed from age 12 to 20 not to become a teacher or a wife. Letitia believed boys were fun for games and sports but housekeeping was completely unrewarding. Naturally, she attended Tuskegee. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1935. Letitia wrote that “the adults in the family seemed to be obsessed with getting the race educated” (Lucy Murray, Grandma’s Corner). Upon completion of her degree and looking for work, teaching emerged as her only option. She accepted a position at the Macon County School. Her first class was 3rd and 4th graders.
Woods Brown wrote: “The rural black school in the segregated post-depression era was deprived by any standard. There were never enough books and the teacher had to provide her own chalk, paper, pencils, curtains and firewood…When the colored schools gave out in early spring, my parents and I agreed that at $300 a year I wasn’t really supporting myself so I might as well go back to school” (Radcliffe Quarterly, March 1974)
Driven by a need to better her lot in life, Woods Brown matriculated to Ohio State University (OSU) in the mid-1930s to pursue a Master of Arts in history. During the course of her program, her academic advisor openly questioned why an African American woman would be interested in obtaining a graduate degree “since everyone knew that Negroes didn’t have the intellectual ability for academic pursuits” (Murray, Grandma’s Corner). The snide remarks did not impede Woods Brown. While at OSU, she joined the NAACP Youth Council’s sit-ins at restaurants that refused service to Blacks. She wrote, “Irritated with our lack of success there and the intransigence of discriminatory policies at the University–dormitory exclusion–we planned how when we finished we would work a year, save all our money, and get outside of the United States to breathe free air” (Radcliffe Quarterly, March 1974). This stereotype suffered a bruised ego when in 1937 Letitia graduated with her MA in history. To heal the scrapes of racism, in 1938 Letitia and a group from OSU went to study Caribbean history and literature in Haiti. The trip outside of America awakened a deep intellectual curiosity within Woods Brown. She wrote, “That trip was my first sally forth to see the world. I loved it” (Radcliffe Quarterly, March 1974).
The travel abroad and the M.A. afforded Letitia access to the college classroom. She taught at Tuskegee and then Lemoyne College in Memphis, Tennessee. “As World War II played havoc with my social life in the 40s,” she recalled
I discovered a growing serious commitment to college teaching. Preparing for the classes in world history I taught at Tuskegee and Lemoyne. I had a chance to explore more deeply what societies and cultures other than the American were like. Some of the black colleges stressed world history rather than modern civilization in an attempt to broaden the base of understanding and stave off development of a totally Eurocentric view of the world (Radcliffe Quarterly, March 1974).
In 1945, Woods Brown took additional classes at OSU in Geography and Eastern History. Ultimately, she left the South for Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend Harvard University where she sought a Ph.D. in History.
While pursuing her degree, she met Theodore E. Brown, a doctoral student in the field of economics. Letitia and Theodore married in 1947. They would have probably married earlier but Letitia was determined to complete her course work, which involved oral exams. In 1947, the couple moved to Harlem, Theodore’s hometown. Woods Brown wrote, “I researched around in Columbia University Library and the New York Public Library until I dropped everything for Dr. Spock. Noisy, nonverbal babies had me thoroughly intimated for a while” (Radcliffe Quarterly, March 1974). Within three years of marriage, the couple had two children: Theodore Jr. and Lucy. Although Woods Brown enjoyed being a mother and wife, she still desired more. She got involved with community projects, serving on the local Health and Welfare Council and attending local PTA meetings. The PTA launched a campaign to force the City Council in Mt. Vernon, New York, to construct a neighborhood playground from an existing dump. Woods Brown wrote that both children were “dragged around to meetings with me between their naps” (Radcliffe Quarterly, March 1974).
She struggled to answer the deep calling of intellectual pursuits while balancing motherhood. There were times on Saturday nights that three or four couples would gather and discuss “the race problem.” She remembered,
At one point the plan we projected for electing a black to the County Board of Supervisors sounded so convincing we decided we really ought to try it…we all pitched in to help, with the wives running the campaign because of their more flexible schedules. To our surprise the plan worked: Harold Wood won the election to become the first black to serve on the Westchester County Board of Supervisors (Radcliffe Quarterly, March 1974).
The Browns left New York for Washington, DC in the late 1960s. However, the time spent in New York had been instructive for Woods Brown: “The stay in Mount Vernon taught me, that practical keys to pursuit of a career were, limit the family size, so everybody’s on his own at some point; and cut the travel time to a minimum” (Radcliffe Quarterly, March 1974). The move to Washington allowed Letitia to complete her dissertation research and exercise her passion for college teaching at Howard University.
Washington, DC in the late 1960s was a whirlwind, and Howard University the eye of the storm. The demand of Howard students that all course employ an Afrocentric perspective frustrated a number of faculty at the university. She wrote, “The constant challenge to justify what you were teaching was irritating and unsettling. But one day I found myself repeating ‘why am I teaching this? How does it really help the young to understand the world they live in?’” (Radcliffe Quarterly, March 1974). The advent of the civil rights movements renewed a sense of radicalism within Letitia. The frustrations she encountered in OSU and the lack she endured when teaching in Macon County impelled her to move beyond the rhetoric of history to the deeper truths. Her job would now be one to destroy specious arguments without destroying the student, to work out a new balance between what students want to know and what professors wanted to teach them.
The move to Washington also awakened in Woods Brown a deeper consciousness about the condition of Black people. While completing the research for her dissertation, she became enthralled with the role of free and enslaved Black people in the Nation’s Capital. Their social, cultural, academic, and private lives intrigued her. Lucy Brown Franklin in writing about her mother’s obsession with Black Washington wrote:
my brother and I spent our summers in Tuskegee with my grandparents and aunts, freeing up out mother’s time to work on her dissertation. During the school year, in addition to raising a family, she taught at Howard and George Washington, was active in professional organizations…. I have vivid memories of her organizing and reorganizing hundreds of thousands of note cards on which she had written her research and rewriting numerous drafts of her dissertation (Murray, Grandma’s Corner).
In 1966, over 18 years after she entered the program, Letitia completed her Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. She is believed to be the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in History from Harvard. She entered Harvard as a 30-year-old single woman in 1945 and graduated as a 51-year-old grandmother when she completed her doctorate.
The completion of her degree opened up the world to Woods Brown. In 1968, a Fulbright fellowship landed her in Monash and Australian National University. “The speaking circuit booked for me by the Australian-American Educational Foundation took me to all kinds of groups I would never have found by myself. And never before in my life had I been so conscious I was female” (Radcliffe Quarterly, March 1974). Before returning to America, she traveled throughout southeast Asia, Singapore, Jaipur, Angkar Wat, Istanbul, Rome, France, and Italy. These travels helped her “live” world history through the museums, ruins, libraries, and people. In 1972 she travelled to Africa: Gao, Segou, Timbuktu, Ibandan, Benin, Kumasi, Luxor, Khartoum, Cairo, Marrakesh, Fez, Axum. After she finished her extensive travel, she concluded that western civilization provided only a worm’s eye view of the world.
During her peripatetic travels, she left her family in America. “My family accepts my wanderings because they are lone travelers, too. After years of vacations together, we were relieved to find nobody’s feelings were hurt if each went his own way at times, to pursue his own interests” (Radcliffe Quarterly, March 1974).
The remainder of her life would be spent in Washington, DC. She published works about the free Black population in Washington, and co-curatored an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery entitled “Washington from Banneker to Douglass 1791-1870″ with Howard University historian Dr. Elise Lewis. In 1972, her dissertation was published as the book Free Negroes in the District of Columbia, 1790-1846. Her passion for an alternative “telling of history” landed her as the primary consultant to the Schlesinger Library Black Women History Project at Radcliffe that include the oral histories of 72 Black women of note in a various fields.
In August 1976 at the age of 60, Woods Brown died after a bout with cancer. Lucy wrote of her mother, “my mother died too early at age 60, but her name and her work have been memorialized by her colleagues” (Murray, Grandma’s Corner). The Historical Society of Washington, DC named their annual history lecture The Letitia Woods Brown Lecture; George Washington University established The Letitia Woods Brown Fellowship in African American History and Culture and the Association of Black Women Historians, under the presidency of Nell Irvin Painter in 1983, named its chief book prize The Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Award.
At the memorial service at the Bethlehem Chapel of the National Cathedral, Roderick S. French, professor of philosophy from George Washington University, said
Strong, intelligent, good-humored Letitia Woods Brown was instructor to all of us. I cannot imagine the person–man or woman–fortunate enough to be associated with her, who would have been so complacent or so dogmatic as never to have been surprised into new understanding by Letitia. Her creative intelligence was continuous, immediate, unlimited by specialization and individual…. There was no arrogance, simply a profound self-confidence, a commitment to trained reason, and a refusal to allow life – her life or the life of others – to be bound by mean or unexamined precedents…. The local community, the university, the nation and even the international community turned to Letitia for leadership at critical moments. Most of her energies of her final year were devoted to a perfect use: a combination of personal diplomacy, scholarship and political sense…. Letitia was a public scholar, something which has been an ideal among humanistic educators for centuries, but a role seldom achieved, and even less frequently so with integrity” (Letitia Woods Brown, 1915-1916, Records of the Columbia Historical Society of Washington, DC, Vol. 50, edited by Francis Rosenberger, 1980).
In the 1974 article entitled “Something for me, my family, the race and mankind,” Woods Brown concluded
Somehow I am both historian and futurist. One basic question haunts me: what do students need to know about themselves, and about the past, that will help them face their world understanding and commitment? I suppose I will continue to grapple with it–with a growing awareness that the way we organize and present data helps shape the way people think, that how we teach is as important as what we teach, that how we feel about what we learn (Radcliffe Quarterly, March 1974).
Woods Brown provides a successful paradigm of juggling passion, parenthood, and profession. By her own confession, there were private moments when she preferred to be Dr. Brown without the responsibilities of children and family. However, those permanent fixtures–husband and children–served as a buffer for her against the frantic winds of sexism, racism, and ageism she endured during her career. Woods Brown did direct graduate at least two doctoral students who have painful memories of the experience. Understandably, there were dark times during the pursuit of higher education. Woods Brown desired to be a conduit for others and a respected member of the intellectual world. In 1973 at a Radcliffe symposium “The Black Woman Myths and Realities,” Woods Brown presented a paper entitled “Battles Won and Evil Overcome.” In this work she explored the hardship gender had on the formation of African American women’s identity:
The role history has marked out for the Black woman is a demanding one. She has always had less protection and consideration than the ideals in the surrounding society demanded. For her there has been no romantic ideal or chivalric code; rather she has been subjected to the most critical and hostile assessments…. She has usually been expected to support herself and others, yet statistics continue to show that she occupies the lowest rung on the income ladder. Out of their struggle for human dignity have come a tradition of independence and self-reliance and a commitment to living the full life that offer a model for all people (The Black Woman: Myths and Realities, edited by Doris J. Mitchell and Jewell H. Bell, 1973).
In summation, Letitia Woods Brown was a fighter and model. Her academic prowess carried her across the country and around the world. Her desire to become a professional historian propelled her for more than half of her life to pursue degrees in history. A self-proclaimed busy-bee, she declared “Triumph – is a day I get them all in–something for me, some for my family, some for ‘the race,’ and some for the ‘good of mankind.’” There can be no greater aim in life than to live with a purpose bigger than oneself. This is the Woods Brown many have come to know, appreciate, and respect.