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The only classics department at a historically black college is closing

HAD YOU lived in America in the late 1700s and been fond of a rhyming couplet, you may well have read Phyllis Wheatley, the literary sensation of her day. Her status made her work more remarkable: she was a slave, named after the ship that had transported her from West Africa as a child. And she wrote the first book published by an African-American. Many dismissed her authorship because the poems were so dense with classical references. “She uses these texts as a way to express her pain about being enslaved, to express her desire to overcome her oppression, and her desire to be free,” says Anika Prather, who teaches the course “Blacks in Classical Studies” at Howard University.

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Many other names crop up during the course, from Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist who read Cicero’s speeches in secret, to Huey Newton, a Black Panther with a liking for Platonic imagery. Yet after a long review, the Howard University classics department is being dissolved. Staff with tenure will be absorbed into other departments. Thus vanishes the last classics department at a historically black college, which has existed since the university’s founding and numbered Toni Morrison among its students.

Eric Hairston, a classicist and professor of humanities at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, calls the decision “appalling”. He blames the un-Roman notion that African-American students need more vocational subjects, an “industrial education” instead of a liberal one. Classics “is something I fell into and fell in love with”, says Alexandria Frank, a 21-year-old Howard student. “People assume that if you know Latin you’ve got some like genius brain going on,” she says, “but it really is just an interesting puzzle-solving language.” Ms Frank’s petition to save the department has over 5,000 signatures.

Classics departments have long recognised, and agonised over, their discipline’s decline. Student numbers are falling (as has been the case for all the humanities since the financial crisis), and a number of American universities and colleges have closed their departments. Classics has an image problem: fusty, elitist and too white. In 2019 Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an associate professor at Princeton, suggested the subject might be too racist to be taught.

Howard has always offered a counterpoint to that view. One of its renowned professors, Frank Snowden junior, specialised in the representation of black people in the classical world. He found many, and also found they were free of modern racialised hierarchies. There were warriors, emperors and comedy writers. Even so, his universitas has given classics the thumbs down.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Finis”