“Raising Hell”: Literacy Instruction in Jim Crow America

Mendelsohn, Susan E.

*Winner of the 2018 International Writing Centers Association Best Article Award.

Histories of writing program administration tacitly focus on predominantly-white institutions (PWIs). “’Raising Hell’: Literacy Instruction in Jim Crow America” is one study that fills a gap created by those larger narratives. In the process, it demonstrates that historically-black college and university (HBCU) writing program administrators faced unique exigencies during the Jim Crow era. And they responded in ways that were politically and technologically savvy: teaching their students literacies that they could mobilize to fight for political and economic justice in a nation that failed to treat them as full citizens.

“Raising Hell” tells the remarkable story of the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) Communications Center. Hampton’s Communications Center was founded in 1941 as part of a larger project to help African-American students to compete for wartime jobs. At the Center, Hampton students received classroom and individual instruction in writing, speech, drama, radio, and print journalism. The Institute’s president paired this pedagogical experiment with a national campaign for fair hiring that challenged the South’s economic status quo. This combination of emerging literacies and fair hiring catapulted the school into controversies that played out across the pages of national newspapers, magazines, and newsreels. It inspired civil rights leaders W.E.B. DuBois and Walter White to pen editorials in support of Hampton’s educational project, citing the Communications Center as evidence of its value. And it led to the resignation of Hampton’s president.

While HBCUs are underrepresented in the academic press of the era, newspapers and magazines covered them intensively. This study argues for the potential of popular press-based research to invest disciplinary histories with a thick description of writing program administrators’ socio-political contexts. And it shows the potential that lies in recently-digitized African-American newspaper archives to repopulate the field’s history with some of its most innovative and socially-progressive pioneers.


  • thumnail for Raising_Hell_Literacy_Instruction_in_Jim Crow America.pdf Raising_Hell_Literacy_Instruction_in_Jim Crow America.pdf application/pdf 258 KB Download File

Also Published In

College English

More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Published Here
March 22, 2021