Ford, Nick Aaron 1904–1982

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Nick Aaron Ford 19041982

Author, scholar, teacher

Family Valued Education

Published His Masters Thesis

Promoted Black Studies

Switched to Nontraditional Education

Selected writings


Nick Aaron Ford was a pioneer of black literary criticism and a crucial voice in the establishment of black studies as an academic discipline. He wrote poetry, short stories, textbooks on writing, and works on black literature and black studies. He also edited anthologies of black literature. As an author and critic, Ford believed that art should be an active social, political, and moral force; that black literature should be a source of social propaganda; and that black writers should focus on black themes. Although his nationwide reputation was based on his scholarship and literary criticism, in his posthumously published autobiography, Seeking a Newer World, Ford defined himself asfirst and foremosta teacher.

Family Valued Education

Born on August 4, 1904, in Ridgeway, South Carolina, Nick Aaron Fords family valued education and hard work. His father, Nick A. Ford, had learned to read and write as a slave and, following emancipation, had continued with formal schooling. Fords mother Carrie was a substitute teacher and taught Sunday school. She devoted herself to her sons education, teaching him to read and write before age five. By the time Ford was ten, she had raised the money to send her son away to the Winnsboro Colored School. With money earned on a construction job, he bought all the books he could find by black authors.

An excellent student, Ford finished high school and college at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. On his own he studied black cultural, social, political, and economic issues. He was a popular lecturer, speaking out for student welfare and leading protests, including a successful student strike.

In 1926 Ford became his familys first college graduate. Although he considered careers in law, medicine, or journalism, financial necessity led him to teach English. Between 1926 and 1945 Ford was a teacher and administrator at various high schools and black colleges across the South.

Published His Masters Thesis

When Ford proposed A Study of the Race Problem as It Appears in Contemporary Novels Written by Negroes as his masters thesis topic, the English faculty at Iowa State University was not impressed. However Dr. Frank L. Mott, director of the journalism school, agreed to be his advisor. Fords thesis examined 18 novels by 11 black authors and was published in 1936 as The Contemporary Negro Novel: A Study in Race Relations. Ford hoped that it would increase interest in black literature and highlight aspects of race relations that were typically discussed only in fiction. In 1945 he completed his Ph.D. dissertation, a study of the uses of propaganda in 80 works of fiction, drama, and poetry by 31 twentieth-century black authors.

Anxious to escape the racial hostility and violence of the Deep South, in 1945 Ford joined the faculty of Morgan State College, a historically black school in Baltimore. He was soon promoted to head of the English and Speech Department where he established

At a Glance

Born on August 4, 1904, in Ridgeway, SC; died on July 17, 1982, in Baltimore, MD; son of Nick A. and Carrie Ford; married Janie Etheridge on September 8, 1927 (divorced); married Ola Scroggins Tatum, June 4, 1968; children: (with Etheridge) Leonard Aaron, Education: Benedict College, AB, 1926; University of Iowa, MA, 1934, PhD, 1945. Religion: Protestant. Politics: Democrat.

Career: Schofield Normal School, Aiken, SC, principal, 1926-28; Florida Memorial College, English instructor, 1929-36; St Philips Junior College, San Antonio, TX, dean of faculty, 1936; Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University), Langston, OK, associate professor of English, 1937-44; Morgan State College, English Department, professor and chair, 1945-73, Alain Locke Professor of Black Studies, 1973-74; Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities, Baltimore Urban Regional Learning Center, Union Graduate School, professor and coordinator, 1974-76, Center for Minority Studies, professor and director, 1976-79.

Selected memberships: Association of Departments of English, executive committee; College English Association, board of directors, executive committee; College Language Association, president; National Council of Teachers of English, board of directors, 1964-67; Modern Language Association, board of directors, executive committee.

Awards: Maryland Council of Teachers of English, Outstanding Service Award, 1971; Outstanding Educator of America for 1971.

a creative writing program. Fords innovations in teaching and evaluating freshman English and sophomore humanities courses were adopted by other English departments.

In 1964 Ford received a research grant from the U.S. Office of Education to study ways to increase literacy skills among disadvantaged college students. For the next three years Ford and his Morgan State colleague, Waters E. Turpin, studied methods for improving reading and writing skills among college freshman. They found that the study of multi-ethnic literature motivated freshman and better prepared them to critique the racial and religious stereotypes that characterized standard college texts. The outcome of their research was an anthology, Extending Horizons: Selected Readings for Cultural Enrichment.

Promoted Black Studies

As president of the College Language Association (CLA), a black teachers organization, Ford pioneered collaborations with other professional groups. In 1956 Ford and Therman B. ODaniel founded the CLA Journal. Between 1961 and 1964 Ford compiled an annual critical survey of important books by and about blacks for Phylon.

In 1970 a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities enabled Ford to take a sabbatical from teaching. He interviewed administrators, teachers, and students at more than 100 colleges and universities nationwide. In the preface to Black Studies: Threat-or-Challenge, Ford described his research as a professional evaluation of the past history, present practices, and future possibilities of Black Studies. His goal was to plan new creative directions which will make Black Studies a part of the mainstream of American education and which will provide opportunities for specialized courses in black culture of the same recognized intellectual value as that of other ethnic studies. His bookcompleted with editorial help from his second wife, Ola M. Ford, an assistant professor of English at Morgan Stateprovided the black studies movement with much needed support.

According to Fords memoirs, as quoted by Ann Venture Young in the CLA Journal, Morgan State established the Alain Locke Professorship of Black Studies to enable him to fulfill the multitude of nationwide requests for lectures and extended visits to college and university campuses as consultant for Black Studies programs.

Switched to Nontraditional Education

Although he had been active in the National Council of Teachers of English since at least 1948, Ford, as a black, was denied membership in the Maryland affiliate. He founded a new local affiliate, the English Council of Greater Baltimore. In 1971 Ford was honored for having improved language arts instruction and for raising professional teaching standards in Maryland.

Following his retirement Ford joined the University without Walls and the Union Graduate School programs, sponsored by the Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities (UECU). He served as a special consultant and doctoral-program professor and coordinator for the Baltimore Urban Regional Learning Center of the UECU. In 1976 Ford was named director of the UECUs Center for Minority Studies in Baltimore. Some 100 students earned doctoral degrees under Fords rigorousbut nontraditionalprogram. Believing that such programs were essential for increasing the numbers of black Ph.D.s, Ford, in his memoirs, called this the crowning experience of his career.

Ford died in Baltimore on July 17, 1982. In April of 1983 Morgan State held the Ford-Turpin Symposium on Afro-American Literature, organized by his former student Burney J. Hollis. There, many former students spoke of Fords influence on their lives and careers. Hollis edited and published papers from the symposium as Swords Upon This Hill: Preserving the Literary Tradition of Black Colleges and Universities.

Selected writings


The Contemporary Negro Novel, Meador Press, 1936; McGrath, 1968.

(With H. L. Faggett, eds.) Best Short Stories by Afro-Americans Writers, 1925-1950, Meador, 1950; Kraus Reprint, 1977.

(With Waters E. Turpin) Basic Skills for Better Writing, Putnam, 1959, 2nd ed., 1962.

Language in Uniform: A Reader on Propaganda, Odyssey, 1967.

(With Waters E. Turpin, eds.) Extending Horizons, Random House, 1969.

Black Insights: Significant Literature by Black Americans, 1760 to the Present, Ginn, 1971.

Black Literature and the Problem of Evaluation, The Black Writer in Africa and the Americas, Hennessey and Ingalls, 1973.

Black Studies: Threat-or-Challenge, Kennikat, 1973.

Seeking a Newer World: Memoirs of a Black American Teacher, Todd & Honeywell, 1983.

(With Saunders Redding) The Long Dream, Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, Amistad, 1993, pp. 59-61.

The Black College as Focus for Black Studies, White Colleges and the Future of Black Studies, The African American Studies Reader, Carolina Academic Press, 2001.


A Blueprint for Negro Authors, Phylon, 1950, pp. 374-377; reprinted in Black Expression, Weybright and Talley, 1969, pp. 276-279.

The Ordeal of Richard Wright, College English, October 1953, pp. 87-94; reprinted in Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1984, pp. 139-148.

The Ambivalence of Ralph Ellison, Black World, December 1970, pp. 5-9.

Confessions of a Black Critic, Black World, June 1971.

Attitudes and Actions of English Departments Toward the Promotion of Black Studies, ADE Bulletin, December 1972, pp. 72-77.

On the Teaching of Black Literature with the Aid of Anthologies, College English, 34, 1973, p. 996.

Jean Toomer and His Cane, Langston Hughes Review, Spring 1983, pp. 16-27.


Songs from the Dark: Original Poems, Meador, 1940.

No Room at the Inn, Best Short Stories by Afro-American Writers, Meador, 1950; reprinted in Afro-American Red Star (Washington, DC), April 13, 2002, p. B3.

Let the Church Roll On, The African American West: A Century of Short Stories, University Press of Colorado, 2000; reprinted in Afro-American Red Star, May 4, 2002, p. B3.

The Majesty of the Law (short story), Afro-American Red Star, April 5, 2003, p. B3.



Hollis, Burney J., ed., Swords Upon This Hill, Morgan State University Press, 1984.


Black American Literature Forum, 1983, p. 99.

CLA Journal, June 1992, pp. 467-487.


Nick Aaron Ford, Biography Resource Center, (January 14, 2004).

Margaret Alic