Dr. Brandon Winford, associate professor of history, says he has always been interested in history, especially Black history. While attending undergrad at North Carolina Central University, a historically black university in Durham, he switched his major from political science to history after taking one history course freshman year.
“No one told me ‘this is how you need to understand this particular topic in history.’ I was given particular vantage points, but ultimately left to come up with my own conclusions and that was inviting to me,” says Winford. The professor of this particular course became a mentor for Winford, nurturing his interest in history and encouraging him to apply for graduate school and to pursue his PhD – a mentor who he continues to keep in contact with and work alongside today.
After graduating from NCCU, Winford began his PhD program at the university of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Having transitioned from an HBCU to a predominantly white institution to continue his studies, Winford is familiar with the challenges that face students of color. “It’s challenging on the one hand because of all the historical challenges of discrimination and inequality that persists at [PWIs]. Part of the challenge is how to continue to deal with that, but at the same time, get what you came for in regard to receiving your degree,” he says.
Winford emphasizes the importance of representation in faculty for students of color at PWIs. Students are often trying to navigate their way through higher education in more ways than just taking courses and doing research. It is not possible to pull back the layers of what is happening underneath and try to have real conversations with students of color if they cannot trust those in leadership positions to have their best interests at heart. Therefore, not only is it crucial to have faculty representative of the student population, but also to have programming, student organizations, funding opportunities, and educational opportunities that seek to provide support to students of color and educate the greater student and university community.
While our university has made progress, and we acknowledge that there is still progress yet to be made, there are several initiatives that UT has embraced and committed to recently that bring Winford optimism. The fact that universities this year, like ours and our leaders, have openly and publicly acknowledged that Black lives matter was monumental. Winford reiterated that five, six years ago, that was something leaders at universities may not have done so readily and openly as it had never been asserted before – written as statements that committed universities. While institutional assertions are important, Winford warns that they wear off after a while, so action needs to follow in order to show change as well as speak of it.
One way in which the College of Arts & Science is doing just that is through Diversity Fellows positions. This program aims to “promote and facilitate inclusion of underrepresented groups by building an institutional structure to retain and promote a diverse faculty, staff, and student body.” Similar initiatives have also been launched by the Division of Diversity & Engagement and the College of Law.
Ultimately, creating long-term commitments and initiatives that will have a generational impact need to be top priority for universities, says Winford. In 2015, Winford co-founded the Fleming-Morrow Endowment in African American History. Named after two pioneering African American professors in the UT College of Arts and Sciences and History Department, Cynthia Griggs Fleming and John H. Morrow Jr., the endowment provides funding for an annual lecture series in African American history and two student awards in African American and military history.
To acknowledge his work in co-founding the Fleming-Morrow Endowment, Winford was selected as the recipient of the 2019 Junior Diversity Leadership Award from the UT College of Arts & Sciences and the 2020 Hardy Liston Jr. Symbol of Hope Award from the Commission of Blacks. Winford says the lecture series is impactful for many reasons but notes that it is the first of its kind at UT. The series aims to bring in Black scholars, from a variety of disciplines and across the U.S., to UT’s campus. “So even if a student may not feel represented in their department at UT, you have these guests coming in to say – I exist,” says Winford.
As a historian, Dr. Winford specializes in late 19th and 20th century U.S. and African American history. He teaches an array of African American history courses from the Civil Rights Movement to African American Politics in a New Political Age, but by far his favorite class to teach is African American Business. He has actually written two books on the subject as it pertains to Black-owned banks in the South.
“Understanding and learning about African American history is important because it is everyone’s history…You can teach an American history course and learn nothing about African American history, but anyone who is teaching African American history, buy its nature, is providing you with the American story,” says Winford.
Winford continues, “It is important to continue to teach African American history because we still have a long way to go with how we understand and to the extent to which we are honest and truthful about our history. By teaching African American history, we are able to remind ourselves that yes, we’ve come a long way, but there are a lot of things we still need to understand about ourselves. Specifically focusing on issues of race, social justice issues – those are the issues of our time – those are issues that are still important and we best understand those issues through the experience of African Americans in so many ways.”
In acknowledgement of Dr. Winford’s experiences in the academy, we have included a list of a few resources below that may help others infuse elements of diversity in their classes as well.