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Collier-Thomas, Bettye M. (1941–) - African-American History, Archives Founder and Director

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The daughter of Joseph Thomas and Katherine (Bishop) Collier, Bettye Marie Collier was born on February 18, 1941, in Macon, Georgia, the second of three children. Her father, the recipient of a B.S. degree in business from Florida A&M College and a master’s degree from Georgia College, was a business executive and public school teacher. Her mother attended Florida A&M College and later completed her education at Hunter College. For a number of years she was employed as a teacher by the Board of Education of the City of New York. Bettye Collier attended elementary schools in New York, Georgia, and Florida, and high school in Jamaica, New York.

As a third-generation college graduate, Collier-Thomas was born into a family of educators, administrators, morticians, artisans, and small business owners, graduates of Fort Valley State College, Howard University, Florida A&M College, Harvard University, Boston University, and other professional schools. Her progenitors include her great-uncle Frank Richard Veal, a graduate of Howard and Boston Universities, a noted African Methodist Episcopal minister and president of several colleges and universities; her grandfather William T. Collier, one of the first blacks to work as a building subcontractor in Georgia and the first to serve on a grand jury in Milledgeville, Georgia; her great-uncle George Williams, the only black to own and operate a barber shop on the main street in Milledgeville; and her grandmother Luzella Veal Collier, a teacher and nurse. Collier-Thomas initially thought she would pursue a career in law, but in the eleventh grade she was inspired by a history teacher at John Adams High School in Jamaica, New York, to become a historian.

Bettye Collier-Thomas received a bachelor’s degree from Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, and a master’s degree from Atlanta University. In 1974 she became the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. in history from George Washington University. During her college career she received many academic awards and honors, including induction into Alpha Kappa Mu National Honor Society, which was the black Phi Beta Kappa organization during segregation; and Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities. Collier-Thomas received a Presidential Scholarship to attend Atlanta University and a Ford Foundation Fellowship for doctoral studies at George Washington University.

An educator and administrator for thirty years, from 1966 to 1976 Collier-Thomas served as a professor and administrator at Howard University and held   faculty positions at Washington Technical Institute and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. From 1977 to 1981 she was a special consultant to the National Endowment for the Humanities, developing the agency’s first program of technical assistance to black museums and historical organizations. From 1977 to 1989 Collier-Thomas served as founding executive director of the Bethune Museum and Archives (BMA). In 1982 Congress designated this institution a National Historic Site, and in 1993 President George Bush signed legislation formally incorporating it into the Department of the Interior. From 1989 to the present Collier-Thomas has served as associate professor of history and director of the Temple University Center for African American History and Culture.

The recipient of many awards and honors, in November 1994 Collier-Thomas received the Department of the Interior’s Conservation Service Award, in recognition of outstanding contributions to the preservation and interpretation of African-American women’s history. This award, one of the highest granted to a private citizen, recognized her singular achievement in the creation and development of the Bethune Museum and Archives. In tribute to her work, Bruce Babbitt of the Department of the Interior stated that “Dr. Collier-Thomas has established the only repository in the country solely devoted to the collection and preservation of materials relating to African-American women in America. Other repositories may collect materials on black history or on women’s history, but no other repository gives black women their principal attention.”

In 1985 President Ronald Reagan appointed Collier-Thomas to the National Afro-American History and Culture Commission. She has received scholarships, fellowships, and major grants from the Ford Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She was featured in the 1986 special issue of Dollars and Sense as one of “America’s Top 100 Black Business and Professional Women.”

During her career Collier-Thomas has rendered extensive professional service. She conceived and developed two pathbreaking conferences, The First National Scholarly Research Conference on Black Women, in 1979, and A National Conference on Black Museums: Interpreting the Humanities, in 1980. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, these conferences were covered by the national and international media and gave visibility to black women’s studies and black museums, both in their infancy at the time. She has served on boards and committees and has been an advisor to many professional organizations, including the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, Association for State and Local History, American Historical Association, and Organization of American Historians. During its early years, she worked closely with the African American Museums Association, helping to organize the association, identifying funding, and providing housing for the organization at the Bethune Museum.

Educated as an urban historian specializing in African-American and American social history, during the early 1970s Collier-Thomas began to explore new methodologies for researching African-American cultural, institutional, and women’s history. She was introduced to the rich historical African-American intellectual and historical tradition, which continues to inform her work, by scholar mentors such as Clarence A. Bacote, Samuel DuBois Cook, John Hope Franklin, and Nell Irvin Painter. By 1977 she had defined several areas for long-term research. These included a history of black theater development and black women’s organizations. Undaunted by the paucity of research and extant records in these areas, she determined to research these topics systematically. Following the founding of BMA, as she struggled to advance and articulate African-American women’s history, she took to related areas of social and cultural history, including religion and the philosophy of theology articulated by black women. Having amassed extensive data in these areas, Collier-Thomas is now writing several books. Forthcoming publications include Over the Footlights: A History of Black Theater Development, Encyclopedia of Black Entertainment , and Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and Their Sermons . Other works in progress include a biography of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and “African American Women and the Church, 1780–1970” (a five-year project funded by the Lilly Endowment). She has published numerous articles and educational materials.

Bettye Collier-Thomas is married to Charles J. Thomas, a retired educator and writer. Among her hobbies is fashion designing.

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over 3 years ago

I'd love to meet and talk to Dr. Collier-Thomas. She seems to be a renaissance women. It's a wonder that so much can be accomplished by one person.