Vivian V. Gordon

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Vivian V. Gordon (April 15, 1934 - March 15, 1995) was the first Black woman to hold the position of tenured professor at the University of Virginia.

Dr. Vivian Gordon in 1971 during a Black Culture Week event


Gordon was born in Washington, D.C. to Thomas and Susan Verdell. She spent most of her childhood on the campus of Virginia State University, where her father was an associate professor.[1] Her parents instilled in her a strong belief in activism and education, both of which she excelled at. During her time at VSU, Gordon was active in politics and the classroom, advocating for Black voter registration in Petersburg while completing her bachelor's degree in physics. She graduated in 1955, and immediately began her master's in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Gordon finished her master's degree and married Ronald C. Gordon in 1957, her college boyfriend who would also go on to receive his Ph.D and teach at UVA, after he returned from serving in the Korean War. The couple moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a researcher on civil rights policy on Capitol Hill until 1962. She found political work disheartening, though, and her next position brought her back to educational institutions, as she worked with community building and participation at Cal State while her husband completed his master's degree.

In 1969, Gordon decided to earn her Ph.D in sociology at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation, which she successfully defended in 1974, was entitled "The Self-Concept of Black Americans" and is considered a key piece of the intersection of African American Studies, sociology, and social psychology.[1] The now-Dr. Gordon was also offered a tenured position at UVA, as well as the directorship of the new African-American Studies program.

Gordon was instrumental in the growth of the young program, and defended it vehemently against detractors. She fought university administrators in the name of making African-American Studies its own department, with more tenured faculty and classes available. Gordon was beloved by her students, as she was willing to go against the university itself in the name of bettering their experience as Black students at a Southern public university.[1] When she announced she would be leaving the university in the spring of 1980, students protested the school's mistreatment of her work, and continued to advocate for proper recognition of the major.

During her time at UVA, Dr. Gordon was featured in a portrait by local artist Frances Brand as part of her "Firsts" Series.[2]

The portrait of Dr. Gordon by Frances Brand

In the fall following her resignation, UVA announced that an African-American Studies Institute would be created, as a new professor, Armstead Robinson had arrived and believed that the interdisciplinary nature of African-American Studies meant a department would be too restrictive to students, as well as guaranteeing that even if department status would not be granted by the administration, African-American Studies would continue at the University of Virginia. This push would lead to the creation of the Carter G. Woodson Institute. In 2012, Claudrena Harold, a celebrated UVA professor, called Dr. Gordon the forgotten woman in the trajectory of Black studies at UVA, and in Black studies in general.[1]

After leaving UVA, Dr. Gordon went to teach at the State University of Albany in New York, where she continued to write and teach. In 1983, she published a book of poetry Dark Women and Others under the name "Satiafa" and in 1985 her book Black Women, Feminism, and Black Liberation focused on the conflicts at the intersection of Black femininity and racism.[3]

Unfortunately for the field of African-American Studies, Dr. Vivian Gordon died young, at the age of 60, following a battle with ALS (commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease) in March of 1995, in Albany, New York.