Slowe, Lucy Diggs (1885–1937)

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Slowe, Lucy Diggs (1885–1937)

Educator who was the first African-American woman dean of Howard University. Born on July 4, 1885, in Berryville, Virginia; died of kidney disease on October 21, 1937, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of Henry Slowe and Fannie (Porter) Slowe; graduated from Howard University, 1908; Columbia University, M.A. in English, 1915.

Lucy Diggs Slowe was born on July 4, 1885, in Berryville, Virginia, the youngest of Henry and Fannie Porter Slowe 's seven children. By the time she was six years old, both of her parents had died, and she was raised thereafter by a paternal aunt in Lexington, Virginia. When she was 13, the family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where she attended public schools and graduated at the top of her class in 1904. She then became a scholarship student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she was one of the founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the first Greek-letter organization for black women.

After graduating from Howard in 1908, Slowe taught English at her alma mater, Baltimore Colored High School. In 1915, she earned a master's degree in English from Columbia University and began teaching at a Washington, D.C., high school. When the District of Columbia's first junior high school for black children was established in 1919, Slowe was appointed principal. In this position, she instituted an integrated in-service course for junior high school teachers, which was conducted by Columbia University. Three years later, in 1922, Slowe was appointed dean of women at Howard University, the first black woman to achieve that position. She also served as a professor of English and education.

Throughout her professional career, Slowe was active in the struggle to elevate black women to a level of equality with whites and black men, and she sought to make the most of her role as women's dean. Deans of women at black colleges traditionally had functioned more as chaperons or guardians of morality than as educators, but as an administrator and educator, Slowe was far more concerned with developing black woman culturally and preparing them for leadership roles than with enforcing strict rules. She commented in The Education of Negro Women and Girls that "when a college woman cannot be trusted to go shopping without a chaperon, she is not likely to develop powers of leadership."

Slowe was also concerned that black women students were not benefiting from a new national movement in higher education that focused on broadening the "whole" student by integrating career guidance, health services, athletics, and cultural activities into the academic experience. She took steps to expose her students to the fine arts, by instituting a cultural series, and to refinement, by organizing women's social functions.

Slowe's mission to improve conditions for her students was also achieved through her active participation in organizations that promoted the advancement of black women. In 1923, she became the first president of the National Association of College Women (NACW), an organization of black women college graduates of accredited liberal arts colleges and universities. Its mission was three-fold: to raise the standards in the colleges where black women were educated; to improve conditions for black women faculty; and to encourage advanced scholarship among women. Another priority of the NACW was to influence the presidents of black colleges to appoint well-trained deans of women. In 1929, she organized the National Association of Deans of Women and Advisors to Girls in Negro Schools, which became independent of the NACW in 1935 as the number of women advisors and deans of black colleges grew. With Mary McLeod Bethune , Slowe helped found the National Council of Negro Women and served as the organization's first executive secretary. She served on the advisory board of the National Youth Administration, and was an active member of the National Association of Deans of Women, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the YWCA.

An accomplished tennis player, Slowe won 17 cups in an era when few blacks competed with whites in that sport. She sang contralto in the St. Francis Catholic Church and in the Madison Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. During the last 15 years of Slowe's life, Mary Burrill , a recognized Washington, D.C., public school teacher and playwright, was her partner and housemate. Still active as dean of women at Howard, Lucy Diggs Slowe died of kidney disease in October 1937. A stained-glass window in Howard University's chapel commemorates her lasting influence, and a dormitory is named her memory.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Kimberly A. Burton , B.A., M.I.S., Ann Arbor, Michigan