The Trailblazing Life of St. Olaf’s First Black Faculty Member
La Francis Rodgers-Rose has led a life defined by trailblazing work.
She is the founder and CEO of the International Black Women’s Congress. She is a founding member and past president of the Association of Black Sociologists and the Association of Social and Behavioral Scientists. She is the author of The Black Woman, the first textbook in the social sciences about Black women from their own perspectives. And she has more than 30 years of college-level teaching experience, including 15 years as a core faculty member in the African American Studies Program at Princeton University.
At age 86, her work continues. Just last year, she delivered a keynote address at Norfolk State University to celebrate the establishment of the African American Psychologist Hall of Fame. Later this month, she will hold a virtual conversation with the St. Olaf College community.
Rodgers-Rose emphasizes that while it’s important to share her accomplishments, it’s just as important to share her beginnings.
She grew up in a working-class family in segregated Portsmouth, Virginia, graduating from an all-Black high school just two weeks after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954 that banned racial segregation in public schools. She graduated with honors from Morgan State University, where her commencement speaker was the young Martin Luther King Jr. Rodgers-Rose arrived at Fisk University in 1958, just as Nashville became central to the civil rights movement, and she crossed paths with future leaders such as Marion Barry, James Bevel, Diane Nash, Angeline Butler, John Lewis, and Bernard Lafayette.
And then, following a graduate school program at the University of Iowa and an on-the-spot job offer from a team of St. Olaf sociology professors, she arrived at St. Olaf in 1964. It was a role that came with two firsts: it was her first full-time teaching job after graduate school, and she was the college’s first Black faculty member.
Rodgers-Rose taught in the St. Olaf Sociology Department for five years. She developed tight-knit relationships with neighbors and friends in Northfield, and found meaningful ways to make a difference — from being a Eugene McCarthy delegate to the 1968 State Democratic convention to responding to the St. Olaf community’s concern about what they could do in the wake of King’s April 1968 assassination. She created the Project Advance program that brought 35 Black and Indigenous students from Minneapolis to campus for a six-week summer mentorship program. Rodgers-Rose was the vice president of the Northfield Human Rights Commission and fought to establish a local chapter of the national A Better Chance program for Black students to attend Northfield High School in 1967.
She left St. Olaf in 1969 to join her husband in teaching at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. As she continued to make an impact over the course of her powerful career, she received numerous awards for her work. The National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women honored Rodgers-Rose with their highest award. She received the founder’s award from the Association of Black Sociologists, and she has been honored by the governor of New Jersey and the General Assembly for community service. She was named a Fulbright Fellow to Africa and a Distinguished Sociology Scholar, and she received the highest honor bestowed upon a woman in Africa when she became enstooled as a Nana in Ghana.
In 2002 Rodgers-Rose was given a new lease on life when she received a heart transplant, and her work now includes advocacy for the importance of organ donations.
As she was writing her memoir in 2021, Rodgers-Rose researched her time at St. Olaf and found no mention of herself. Knowing that her role as the first Black faculty member at the college was noteworthy, Rodgers-Rose reached out to the Office of Equity and Inclusion and started the process of unearthing her presence at the college. She recently sat down for a conversation about her experience at St. Olaf, the powerful career she’s developed since, and her hopes for the future.
You are one of the pioneering Black women sociologists, and your work has received numerous honors. What led you to a career in sociology?
Early on, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I’ve always had concerns about social justice and rightness. Growing up in Portsmouth, Virginia, in the late 1940s, early 1950s, we had one Black lawyer in town. I saw him on the street one day, and I asked “What was your major in college?” He responded, “Sociology.” I therefore enrolled at Morgan State and majored in sociology. While there I had a wonderful professor, Dr. Clifton R. Jones, who thought I would be an excellent sociologist. He reached out to his colleague at Fisk University, Dr. Jitsuichi Masuoka, and was able to secure a scholarship for me to work on a master’s degree. They both had been graduates of the University of Iowa. They wrote my recommendations for the Ph.D. program. I was the only Black student in the Sociology Department. The year that I graduated, I was voted by the faculty as the best graduate student in the department. I earned my doctorate in 1964 and became the ninth Black woman in the U.S. to have earned a Ph.D. in sociology.
What drew you to St. Olaf in 1964?
My husband had always wanted to earn his doctorate from the University of Minnesota in American studies and had received a scholarship to study under a specific professor. I had only received a scholarship to the University of Iowa. My husband simultaneously also had a scholarship to attend the University of Iowa. He decided to come with me to the University of Iowa. He worked on a master’s in American studies, but still wanted to earn his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. Since he had been so kind and came to Iowa, I felt obliged that I should come to Minnesota. I started searching for jobs. I was at the American Sociological Association meeting and I came in contact with St. Olaf sociology faculty members Dwight Culver, Bill Cupp, and Ken Olsen, and they interviewed me. They kind of hired me on the spot.
How would you describe St. Olaf College at that time?
There was hardly any diversity when I came to the St. Olaf campus. I was a member of the admissions committee for two years, and the only diversity I remember was deciding what percentage of students would be admitted from the American Lutheran Church and what percentage would be from the Missouri Synod, and what percentage was going to be from all of those various sub-denominations of Lutheran. It wasn’t so much deciding about diversity as it relates to race.
Lee Oliver was a St. Olaf student in the Class of 1969. He was the only African American student in that class and was also elected president. He became a lawyer. Many years later, we were at a conference in California at the same time. He said to me, “I want to thank you for being at St. Olaf. Although I did not take a class from you, your presence was very important to me.”
You were not only the college’s first Black faculty member, but you were the first teacher of color that many St. Olaf students had ever had. Did this impact your interactions with students or faculty colleagues during that time?
I don’t think so — at least that I was aware of. I had been steeped in the civil rights movement and protesting for many years, and there was very little that could intimidate me. I was able, at times, to take unpopular positions and maintain them. One of my colleagues said to me, as I was leaving St. Olaf, “I didn’t always agree with you, but I admired your ability to stand for what you believed in.”
I had excellent relationships with my students. My teaching is centered on the idea that we have to be doers in the community. One semester I had my students participate in a project to winterize homes in the Prairie Island Indian Community near Red Wing, Minnesota. My students were key supporters of the Project Advance mentorship program for Black and Indigenous students. These were great experiences.
You came of age during the civil rights movement. How did that impact the way you thought about activism and advocating for change? How were you involved in the movement?
I came to Fisk University at an opportune time in 1958 because the Nashville sit-in movement produced a number of key people who subsequently became crucial members of the larger civil rights movement, and some went on to work with Martin Luther King. The student sit-ins started in the spring of 1960. Three of us graduate students had rented the house of two faculty members who were on sabbatical for the year. A number of the graduate students who were very much in the civil rights movement would gather at our house and discuss the strategies of the movement.
Some of these individuals early on included [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) inaugural future chair] Marion Berry. He was a graduate student in chemistry, and I was a graduate student in sociology. He was president of the Fisk Graduate Student Association, and I was the vice president. Also participating in these discussions was James Bevel, who later became the theoretician and strategist for most of the activities for Martin Luther King. Diane Nash was an undergraduate student at Fisk who later married Bevel, and the two of them did critical civil rights organizing for the movement. John Lewis was there as a freshman. He was at the American Baptist Theological Seminary, along with fellow freshman Bernard Lafayette, who became well known in the movement. Angeline Butler was an undergraduate at Fisk at that time as well. She was very involved in the sit-in movement, and we later became good friends.
I participated in the Nashville civil rights movement, but I never participated in the lunch counter sit-ins. I knew that I would not permit anyone to spit on me, pull me off a stool, hit me, or many of the other things that the sit-in students had been trained to endure. There were basically two kinds of contingencies from the very beginning: the ones who really believed in nonviolence strategies like the sit-ins, and those who thought about other ways to push the movement forward. The ones you see a lot of are the students who had gone the nonviolent route, trained by the Rev. James Lawson Jr. As the students left Nashville and moved further south toward Mississippi and Alabama [on the first Freedom Rides], I left Nashville, moved to D.C., and got married. Subsequently, you know, I’m over at St. Olaf College in 1964.
In 1980 you authored the first textbook in the social sciences about Black women from their own perspectives. If you were to rewrite that book today, would the experience of Black women be different?
No. It’s basically the same. The purpose of the book was to ask what Black women say about their own lives. What do Black women say about their families? What do they say about politics? What do they say about their economic conditions? These are not easy questions because sociologists were not trained to actually research and understand Black people’s perspectives.
Because I was one of the early Black female sociologists, I knew a number of women who were in academia. Some were just beginning their careers, and their paper in the book was their first major publication. If anything, we need an updated edition of that book. We need to see where we are now in 2023 versus where we were in 1980. I’m not sure we are better off.
I wish I had the time and energy to update the book. I’ve had a number of people say the book saved their lives. The younger generation that came after me couldn’t find any positive things written by Black women. They said that the book helped them get themselves together. So it probably served its purpose.
Why did you found the International Black Women’s Congress?
My brother and I developed and facilitated various aspects of community training. He was a minister and spiritualist. In 1979 we created an organization named Training, Research, And Community Educational Services (TRACES). Over the years, we had begun to identify or see women who needed a safe space, needed some place to grow, and also needed some sense of trying to find out who they were and how they could maintain their integrity and walk in this world as Black women. The International Black Women’s Congress was created as a nonprofit organization in 1983 to address these needs of Black women.
Two years later, in 1985, the World Congress on Women was to be held in Africa for the first time. IBWC immediately started organizing to participate in this. We held a pre-conference in 1984 in Denver, preparing to go to Kenya for the World Congress. Over the year, we recruited 35 women for the trip to Kenya. Once we arrived, we were able to deliver four major workshops. We also met a Kenyan sister who loved our group and invited some of us to come to her hometown, about 40 miles outside Nairobi. Meeting families in the community who opened their homes to us was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in my life. It was just so unbelievable.
Once we returned home that fall, we held our first national conference in 1985 in Newark, New Jersey. We’re coming up now on our 39th annual conference. If all goes well, I hope we can do it in person in September in Virginia. Our motto is “we seek to bring forth exemplary models of Black womanhood by naming ourselves and defining ourselves and improving ourselves through socioeconomic and political empowerment.”
How can people support and further the work you’ve devoted your life to?
There’s more work and more challenges than any of us are going to be able to solve. We’ve been lulled over the last 40 or 50 years into a kind of complacency. I think a lot about one of the lessons that a dear colleague of mine has shared. He tells people that you can’t do anything about the way the world was when you arrived. You can’t complain because it’s hard. All you can do is work as vitally as you can to correct as many injustices as you can. You do the best you can to bring rightness into the world, and then you pass the baton to the next generation. Life was not made for us to be sad, so you must struggle but you also must enjoy.