February is Black History Month, and while Professor of French Cherie Maiden is happy to have her significant place in that history at Furman recognized, it’s more important for it to be remembered accurately.
“I always have to remind people that I was one of the first two, because Saundra Ardrey, who was hired to teach political science, came in the same year,” Maiden said.
Maiden and Ardrey broke Furman’s faculty color barrier in 1983 by becoming its first full-time African American instructors. They arrived nearly 20 years after Joseph Vaughn ’68 enrolled as the school’s first African American student in 1965 and 15 years after students demanded diversity in Furman’s faculty and staff in a series of articles published in The Paladin.
Maiden doesn’t recall it getting much attention at the time, and though she has remained a fixture in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature ever since, many people probably don’t know of her status as a Furman trailblazer. Seeking to highlight her place in Furman history is one of the reasons Neil Jamerson and Natalie The, co-chairs of Furman’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, have recommended renaming the Meritorious Award for Diversity & Inclusion for faculty the Maiden Invitational Award in her honor.
Maiden admits her list of reasons for applying to Furman was short and didn’t contain “fight for civil rights.”
“I came like my colleagues did. I was seeking employment and an opportunity to pursue teaching at an institution of higher learning,” Maiden said. “I wasn’t coming to try to integrate Furman. I didn’t have any noble ambitions in mind.”
A native of St. Louis, Maiden attended Washington University and was looking for her first job after earning a Ph.D. in French from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She knew little about Furman and had no idea that it had never had a black faculty member.
Maiden broached the subject during her interview and was given an answer that wasn’t technically untrue. That’s because Ardrey had been hired a couple of weeks before.
“I asked if there were any other African Americans on the faculty, and the response was more or less ‘yes’ in a certain way,” Maiden said. “I don’t know that that would have changed my decision to come if I had learned that there weren’t … I had done all of my undergraduate work and my Ph.D. work at institutions that were predominantly white, so I always found myself in classes where I was oftentimes the only African American anyway.”
Maiden’s plan was to stay at Furman until she could move to a larger city, but the next thing she knew she’d received tenure and couldn’t imagine herself anywhere else. Some of the credit goes to now-retired Professor of Spanish Bill Prince and the effort he put into making her feel welcome.
“I think he just genuinely as a human being, for whatever reason, was more naturally open to welcoming someone not like himself, someone who didn’t look like him,” Maiden said. “I think something in your life experiences have prepared you for that, or you’ve made a choice along the way to not be a certain way.”
Idella Glenn ’84, who served as Furman’s director of diversity and inclusion from 1996 until 2014, went out of her way to take one of Ardrey’s political science classes, though it did little to help with her degrees in mathematics and computer science. That’s because Maiden and Ardrey joining the faculty was hugely important to African American students, she said.
“I hadn’t had (an African American professor) before,” said Glenn, now a special advisor on inclusivity and diversity at Hollins University. “It was always important to me to see someone who looked like me. I had gone to a predominantly black high school, and coming to Furman was a complete culture shock in terms of African American representation.”
Maiden recognized the special bond she had with students of color.
“I think in my entire educational experience I had maybe three professors that looked like me, kindergarten through my Ph.D. program,” Maiden said. “It’s a totally different experience … There’s something empowering to have someone that looks like you teaching you.”
What was nearly as empowering for Maiden, who currently holds the Lois Aileen Coggins Professorship in French, was the day she learned that she, as a black woman, could be a mentor in ways that transcended race, just as white professors had for her.
“It had never occurred to me that I could be a role model to a white student,” Maiden said. “I had a female student tell me what an important role model I’ve been for her, and I was struck by, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done. I don’t know what I’ve said.’ I was confident I could mentor students who looked like me.”
But, she said, “There are other parts of who I am, and that’s what some students are seeing and getting something from. That’s when I realized putting ourselves in a box limits us so much.”
Furman has 13 black faculty members. The Meritorious Diversity and Inclusion Awards are given to a current faculty member, staff member and student who have demonstrated an emerging or sustained commitment to advance Furman’s value of diversity, inclusion and multiculturalism on campus. The Maiden Invitational Award will be presented at convocation alongside the Meritorious Award for Staff and the Rosa Bodkins Award for students.
The Center for Inclusive Communities will celebrate Black History Month with a series of events throughout February.