Lucy Diggs Slowe was a trailblazer for women and Black youth. Born in Virginia is 1885, Slowe lost both parents by the age of 6. Lucy, fortunately, was taken in by her paternal aunt, Martha Price.
Not long after moving to Lexington, Virginia, with her aunt, Lucy experienced another trauma that too many elementary Black students experience today. She was expelled, as a 6-year old, from school because of her academic struggles and her behavior.
However, her aunt moved them to Baltimore in pursuit of better schools. Once in Baltimore’s segregated (re: all-Black) public schools, she excelled. Slowe graduated second in her class and was the first woman graduate of the Baltimore Colored School to receive a scholarship to attend Howard University.
At Howard, Slowe continued to excel, both inside and outside the classroom. She graduated from Howard at the top of her class. She co-founded the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first created by and for Black women. Slowe received her master’s degree from Columbia University.
Slowe was also a star student athlete, dominating on the tennis courts at Howard. Later, she became the first Black person to win a national title in any sport, winning the American Tennis Association National tournament in Baltimore.
Slowe became a teacher after graduating Howard. She kept playing tennis, though, and won the ATA national tennis championship during her teaching career—this made her the first Black woman to win a national championship in any sport.
Slowe served in both Baltimore and Washington, D.C. as a teacher leader in all-Black schools. In 1919, Slowe created the first junior high school for Black students in Washington, D.C. and served as its principal until 1922, when Slowe returned to Howard to become the dean of women and a member of the English faculty. As the principal, Slowe designed a school that took the professional development of her staff very seriously, even convincing her alma mater, Columbia University, to provide coursework for teachers—for both Black and white teachers.
Back at Howard, Slowe used her position to elevate the opportunities and conditions for Black women at the university. She established a women’s campus, encouraged the ladies of the campus to study more rigorous courses, and established a women’s dinner to celebrate the women of Howard. Men could attend, but they could only watch on the balcony or assist as servers.
Slowe also used her position to advocate for Blacks and Black women. She advocated for Black women in the suffrage movement. She joined literary clubs and society groups to discuss the issues of the day. She gave talks and wrote periodicals to speak out against racism and intersectionality and the double-edged sword placed upon Black women because of their Blackness and femininity. Slowe denounced segregation in Washington D.C. and boldly did so. Slowe worked with Mary McLeod Bethune to found the National Council of Negro Women.
However, Slowe faced opposition within Howard University—namely the university’s president. His jealousy and sexism ultimately contributed to the Slowe’s untimely passing.
Nevertheless, Slowe understood the power of her position and leveraged it for the benefit of Black people, specifically Black women. She was an educator who understood the importance of educating students and advocating for students, particularly Black women. As the first Black woman to hold the position of Dean of Women, she had an extraordinary role in fighting for equity, racial, and gender rights on college campuses.
We educators mustn’t forget that we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We must teach and we must also advocate. That’s what eduactivists are charged with today, as they were yesteryear.
Lucy Diggs Slowe: a member of the Black Educator Hall of Fame.
For more information on Lucy Diggs Slowe, visit the following site.