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cynthia fleming
Cynthia Fleming

As a member of the pioneering generation of black women historians at the nation’s historically white colleges and universities, Cynthia Griggs Fleming made a career out of making history.

During Black History Month, colleagues of the professor emerita will honor her work at UT as well as the trails she blazed as a civil rights pioneer. A reception will be held from noon to 2:00 p.m. on Friday, February 6, at the Black Cultural Center, Room 102-104.

In 1977, Fleming became the first black woman to earn a PhD in history from Duke University. In 1982, she joined UT’s history faculty as one of the first two black women faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences.

When Fleming arrived at UT, she said she didn’t know what to expect.

“When I graduated from Knoxville College, historically black school, UT had just started integrating. Back then we considered it hostile territory,” she said.

Fleming earned tenure in 1987 and spent the next ten years chairing and overseeing the growth of UT’s African American Studies program. She was promoted to professor in 2005 and, after thirty-two years of service, retired last year.

“Dr. Fleming remains a model of grace and excellence in the academy, and her pioneering scholarship in black women’s history continues to inspire new generations of scholars and students alike,” said Ernest Freeberg, head of the history department.

A distinguished historian of the civil rights movement and an oral history specialist, Fleming is the author of three books, including Yes We Did? which examines the expansion of black leadership from grassroots to the national arena beginning with Booker T. Washington and ending with President Barack Obama. She is also the founding co-editor of the book series Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century at the University Press of Kentucky.

Being a part of the history she taught and studied has its positives and negatives.

“It gives you a double consciousness,” she said. “On the one hand, I have this advantage because I have this unique perspective. But, on the other hand, it is challenging because I need to stay objective.”

While at UT, Fleming planned and coordinated two national conferences commemorating the fortieth anniversaries of Freedom Summer and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, in 2004 and 2005 respectively. She also taught and mentored hundreds of students—and colleagues like Shannen Dee Williams.

“As only the second African American woman history professor in this university’s history, I am deeply indebted to Cynthia. She is a member of the pioneering generation of black women scholars who made a way out of no way at the nation’s historically white colleges and universities, and I am honored to carry on her rich legacy at UT,” said Williams, assistant professor of history.

Fleming is keeping busy during her retirement. Being a Detroit native, she is a classic car collector. She also goes horseback riding every day.


Whitney Heins (865-974-5460,