Black Women Academics Are In Crisis

Dani Bethea
16 min readJan 16, 2024


If they’re not pushed out, they’re pushed to their emotional and physical limit.

(from left to right) The first Black Women in the U.S. to receive a Ph.D., in the same year 1921: Georgiana Simpson, Sadie Mossell Alexander, and Eva Dykes.

Content/trigger warning: the following piece will broach or allude to some very heavy topics, such as self-harm, disordered eating, suicide, and death. Caution and care are advised while reading.

As of this posting, these are the Black Women in Academia whose stories I’ve been able to catalog whose lives have sadly been cut short:

Dr. Thea Hunter, 62, traveling adjunct professor. 2019.

Dr. JoAnne Epps, 72, Temple University President. 2023.

Dr. Orinthia Montague, 56, President of Volunteer State College. 2023.

Dr. Antoinette Candia-Bailey, 49, Vice President of Student Affairs. 2024.

However, the rate and reality of Black Women’s experiences in the academic space reaches far beyond 2019 to the present. I thank these women for their service to their Universities and we must acknowledge the students whose lives they’ve shaped. To their families and loved ones, I pray that better workplace advocacy and harm reduction come as a result for the Black Women who choose to navigate all that comes with the precariousness of an academic path.

A few months ago, Temple’s president JoAnne Epps, 72, died on the stage. A few days later another uni president Orinthia Montague, 56, died. Thea Hunter, 62, died. All Black Women. It’s a news article or two and then everyone moves on. These are are triggering.
A powerful thread written by Leah Goodridge was the impetus for expediting this entire article I had planned from last year.

First and foremost, we must be honest and truthful that what happened to these Black Women is tragic. Tragedy is not a word to be used flippantly or without context. The world in which Black Women find themselves is pre-turbulent, i.e., before they are sentient beings. The traumatic echo of epigenetics via slavery (including sexual trauma and family disruption), emancipation (convict leasing-sharecropping-debt peonage), Jim Crow (redlining-lynching-race massacres), land loss, the Great Migration, police violence and other current stressors that their Mothers carry and have carried is real and frequently makes for untenable and ‘high-risk’ pregnancies; stress (and violence or being violated) is the boomerang that Black Women just cannot seem to dodge.

Black Women are expected to bear the burden of all familial obligations that can take many forms, which frequently include unpaid-unthanked work. They too must grin and bear indignities at work, in public, and with people in positions of power that could mean life or death, or if they receive a paycheck or social services that month. If it can be measured, Black Women experience the weight and sheer tonnage of societal anti-Blackness coupled with the vitriol against women, which we have a name for — misogynoir — thank you, Moya Bailey.

There’s another phenomenon that we frequently call cultural, that in my opinion is a misnomer, that is not tabulated into the knapsack of stress and expectation that Black Women must perpetually carry…one might call it ‘ the one who picks up the pieces’ or ‘the one whose shoulder we cry on’ or ‘the one who’s going to cook for the repass’. Notice, that all of these are some type of labor: emotional, psychological, or physical. There is a long history of what Black Women are expected to do or some type of service that they are expected to provide that is consumed by others without a check-in afterward. Have we ever thought about what happens to the Aunties, Mothers, or Grandmothers of the family after a loved one dies, a loved one is killed via police violence, the medical system, an environmental disaster, or as quiet as it’s kept, suicide.

There are innumerable ways to die or experience death and the burden of that leaves many unprepared and in uncharted turbulent seas. We are woefully unequipped to take on that totality of all that entails and come out the other side unharmed or unscathed. Our reactions after an internal or external calamity are varied and nuanced. Some may turn inward or lash outward while navigating named or unnamed experiences of anger, grief, doubt, confusion, anxiety, or depression with disordered eating, hoarding, agoraphobia, or self-harm with various intoxicants. Being a human on this planet as it currently stands is hard, but attempting to do so while Black and a Woman is Sisyphean.

Lest we forget…which we do so often (with/without malicious intent)…those of us who exist in the intersections or the margins of this life as well.

Homelessness and/or unsafe living conditions are a pressing reality we must acknowledge that thousands (if not millions) are experiencing. Many of us are facing an uncertain economic future where housing remains the buttress to job acquisition, school participation for children, and ‘wealth accumulation’. There is a fulcrum of stress for those of us who rent, the greed and misdeeds of landlords, trying to ’be a good tenant’ with no ‘bad history’ attached to us, police/state/court involvement with evictions, and conversely for this of us with homes: skyrocketing mortgages, and increasing property/state/house insurance taxes.

Oh! Oh! Oh!

It would behoove everyone to think about climate change because it is a reality that is not going away and as of now is only going to escalate. Food for thought, many of us do not have nest eggs of cash to survive the extremes that climate change is already presenting us with. For example, sub-zero temperatures that harm life and property, heat that leaves us without air conditioning, or what extremes in temperatures like this leave us with: hurricanes, blizzards, tornados, flooding, etcetera etcetera.

*As an aside, I live in North Carolina, where we experienced two major hurricanes (Matthew then Florence respectively) back-to-back years ago but many of our residents still have not economically recovered or are waiting on state/federal aid assistance that still has not come. We were literally, not figuratively, cut off from the rest of the country because our infrastructure was unnavigable; if many of our roads/bridges weren’t destroyed…the sheer amount of water that made our highways and cities inaccessible was incalculable…billions of dollars if you want to quantify it. Plus, these events were traumatic, wherein, grief counselors or at the very least access to therapists/therapy as an additional option in the aftermath should have been made available (which is something else that we don’t invest in as a country after a natural or unnatural disaster). It’s one thing to empathize with those who survived Hurricane Katrina and who were able to tell the tale, it's another to experience something similar and have it happen to you twice, thrice, or more in your lifetime. An aside to this aside…does anyone ever think: what happened and where did the people/families go after the horror of that event? We know many did not stay in the state of Louisiana, were forced to leave, or could not afford to stay. We saw some stories where some went (or were forced) elsewhere in the South, e.g., Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, etc…but what after that? Did anyone ever check in with all of those displaced people? The HBO documentary by the New Orleans native Edward Buckles, Jr., entitled Katrina Babies (2022) was a long overdue and necessary start (to try and tackle the question of traumatized people and the aftermath) because sadly no one ever thought or made the concentrated effort to ask how did the Black children fare after this horrific event and what help do they need?

Mental illness and mental health are factors that can boomerang back to housing security and dually reflect how we’re perceived by the state-medical-carceral system. Whether our mental health issues develop biologically or by our environment is one conversation but getting the help we need safely should be the core of our focus. Safe environments to seek therapy, medication, and friend/family units to be our anchors or buoys in the process are beyond crucial — for us, it can mean life and death. Another brief tangent, but this one is important…do you have a person who can be your advocate in a healthcare setting? Do you have options outside of contact with law enforcement to assist friends or family members who are experiencing suicidality, self-harm, or off-prescribed medications that may affect their behavior? Violence is a topic that we frequently tip-toe around because violence is not innately inherent to us or how many of us live/experience our lives; it either escalates, can be explosive, or somewhere in between but the fallout from it can be immense. Thus, we should all be more proactive (within reason) to protect those within our community from harm.

Disability (and yes the aforementioned mental aspect of disability or disabilities) and how it exists for us from birth or if we live long enough appears some time throughout our lifetimes looms large and the lack of proper education, miseducation, and funds dedicated to our needs at school, in various healthcare settings, places of recreation, travel, etcetera is truly a travesty. Many of us need mobility aids but cannot afford them or many of us have them but trying to maintain them is extremely costly, and frighteningly many states have income caps for people with physical disabilities. Poverty or the threat thereof is a reality for many with physical disabilities…the amount of laws that each state has regarding ‘dos and don’ts’ or ‘wills and wonts’ is massive and you won’t find out about them unless you’ve experienced your disability since birth/childhood or become disabled later in life (which as mentioned if you live long enough, have a job dangerous enough, survive an unforeseen medical crisis, or an extreme accident) will be the biggest wakeup call in the world that the U.S. (and capitalist nations more broadly) really really do not like (or adequately care for) disabled folks.

The Gender Sexuality Discussion. I was going back and forth in my mind about even attempting to type this out but I took to heart (my own queer identity in/outside of my own academic experiences) and whether I should address gender and sexuality paradigms where the broader landscape of Black women exist…heck, what about those (like me) that don’t identify as women but are read as such??

After much debate and handwringing…YES, yes I will address ‘it’ because how we present in a patriarchal society matters and one that fears or tolerates queerness is another in which Black women have to be the shining standard; liberal colleges (that still exist that aren’t under threat from a conservative white supremacist heterosexist Moms for Liberty campaign) are another topic altogether for their pre or supposed inclusivity or embrace of ‘diversity’ in how one presents as a professor in that space (but I’d love to know about some of the dynamics that go on there for white faculty versus everybody else).

*Aside, as an undergrad, I attended a private Christian school in the south but as a graduate student attended a public ‘liberal’ university in the mountains so the experiences between the two were vast…especially because they were PWIs so the Black population varied but we most certainly had a sizable presence. Thank goodness! However, being a visibly queer person at one university versus the other was vast. The march of progress was long at my first University and after I graduated I heard there were far more strides to make the campus a safer and ‘more inclusive’ space…let’s hope that promise/promises stuck. My graduate experience was almost without incident (because the Pride flags were cool to see) but my racial experience was another matter via hate crimes and threats of violence targeted towards the Black students on campus. The campus administration and staff had some sticky wickets to wade through when that happened; their attempts to assuage fears for Black students' safety and inclusion while making the white students feel some modicum of comfort throughout the process was…a mess. As much as they tried, I can see why it's so messy at PWIs trying to tackle ‘race issues’. If you’re not in it for the long haul, the momentum falls apart or you lose the initial framework to address/correct harm, but I digress…shifting focus back to Black Women in Academia….

Each of the Black women who navigated the tightrope of the academy presented in a ‘feminine’ way which often means ‘non-threatening’ but regardless of their appearance, the individual is still Black so that comes with a minefield to navigate, in tandem with being a woman amongst men who hold the pursestrings in the University system. I cannot imagine (well some of them we can due to the reporting in the aftermath) but how many had to fall on the sword, choke down indignities, or be the pincushion of their respective departments?

If you have the experience, think back to when you were a student in University and all the tumult you may have had to witness or be a part of…now, imagine you’re trying to navigate the pipeline from student to faculty to admin and everything that comes in between while Black and a woman. I know you all have horror stories that you’ve never shared with anyone. Some of you left while you were students and never graduated. Some of you saw the warning signs beforehand, fled from higher education, avoided high faculty positions, or you’re where some of these women were before they passed away…the only one, the last one, the un-promoted one, the harassed one, or the diminished one. It seems that although there may have been other humans around these women, what were those relationships like? The way their lives unceremoniously ended made me truly question how lonely they were in the interim.

*But soon after she took the position of Vice President in May of 2023, her friends noticed a change in her.

“I was literally just with her at homecoming and she was like ‘I’m just trying to make it through.’” said Shaunice Hill, another close friend of Candia-Bailey’s. “Her whole demeanor had changed. Yes, she was still smiling, but you could tell that something was off — something was different.” — *KRCG NEWS

(link attached to news article. Trigger warning, the piece is a difficult read.)

Dr. Antoinette Candia-Bailey utilized every tool at her disposal for mental health leave and access that the University and federal system allow for employees and was still dismissed, rebuffed, and harassed to her limit. Likewise, Dr. JoAnne A. Epps was prepared to retire and was in the process of doing so until the University begged her to stay and fill another taxing role as President of the University, where she had not been long before she collapsed IN PUBLIC at a University event and shortly thereafter died. Whether publicly or privately, each of the Black women listed experienced great suffering in various capacities before they died.

I missed the sobering story of Dr. Thea Hunter, but she was frequently overlooked and bypassed for tenure and bounced between multiple universities for work, teaching opportunities, and adequate pay. The fact her story is one many of us missed but is one that we intimately know makes this crisis more stark because we’re either finally putting the dots together about this crisis or this phenomenon is one that can only go underreported for so long. I feel like we have to play an extreme game of catch-up regarding decades-upon-decades of the Black women who paved the way for us to receive an education, receive the degrees, and teach to properly quantify what we’ve missed regarding Black women’s experiences (or deaths) due to the academy. I am sincerely shaken by what’s happening, now that we see it…thank you Internet, but there have been things hidden regarding Black (women’s) history that have led to this point where Black women are dying in supposedly revered spaces of higher learning like this. What’s that phrase, when a coincidence becomes a pattern…

Tragedies are fraught layered experiences and as such they must be examined and reckoned with accordingly because there are a cavalcade of warning signs before something grim and irreversible occurs. While careening onto this tangential exit we must address PUSHOUT; the fact that these Black women lost their lives in institutions they loved (and they presumed loved them) and how the red flags of insidious pushout were peppered throughout their lives as Black women, further coloring their experiences in turn within the academy hierarchy of administration, boardrooms, and trustees. We might think that pushout happens all at once but it is incremental and has the one-two punch of physical weathering on the mind and body.

The most prominent instance that many have heard regarding this phenomenon of pushout recently happened to Dr. Claudine Gay of Harvard whose details I’m sure you’ve seen all over the Internet and your favorite podcast (but the long and short of it was that the genocide in Palestine and the actions of Israel were weaponized against her as a political wedge issue to push her out); what happened to Dr. Gay is not — as we now know — an isolated incident, not a targeted coincidence, but a pattern.

Also, if you haven’t heard about it, Dr. Christine Johnston McPhail was terminated in December 2023, has a pending EEOC investigation ongoing, and claims the workplace was hostile and discriminatory based on gender; she was the former president of Saint Augustine’s University, who was hired after her husband, Irving Pressley McPhail, passed in 2020 of COVID-19. Saint Augustine’s is a historic HBCU in Raleigh, North Carolina that is also currently fighting to keep its accreditation! As I was reading various news articles surrounding her experience at the University I was struck by her attention to recording what’s been happening to her and her Black women peers for that matter in nauseating detail (similar to Dr. Candia-Bailey before she passed away).

WRAL News: According to the charge, in an Oct. 5 board meeting, one male member yelled at Dr. McPhail, “Woman, did you hear me speak?! I demand you answer my question!” The charge alleges the same trustee later shouted at McPhail, “Who do you think you are?! You’re just an employee. Get out of my face, employee!”

Ummm…what’s worse than the word yikes?! This is just one documented instance, what else has she and other Black women in academe endured — no, suffered? As we see with Dr. McPhail and Dr. Candia-Bailey, just because you work at a historically Black college/university does not mean you’re coasting on flower beds of ease or that every day is harmonious because Black women *cough cough* have to deal with Black and white men there too. When our lives are summarily shortened in this violent way, I return again and again, to:

Brittney Cooper’s Ted Talk The Racial Politics of Time, “Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that ‘the defining feature of being drafted into the Black race [is] the inescapable robbery of time.’ We experience time discrimination he tells us, not just as structural, but as personal: in lost moments of joy, lost moments of connection, lost quality of time with loved ones, and lost years of healthy quality of life.” — Brittney Cooper — The Racial Politics of Time, Ted Talk (2017)

Brittney Cooper — The Racial Politics of Time, Ted Talk (2017)

Beyond the racial politics of time, we are in dire need of a part two from someone within the academy (who isn’t afraid of losing their job or tenure if they have it) who is willing to speak out about ‘the racial-gender politics of time’ because again like the intersections addressed at length above, there are so many of us that are made invisible by being positioned at the margins of society, or within the racial-gender-disability dynamics of so many issues.

My goodness, I almost concluded this entire piece without addressing ageism!

All of the Black women who have sadly passed on or who have been pushed out are all over the age of 45 and Dr. Candia-Bailey who was the youngest, was almost 50. I hate that there is this ticking clock over Black lives and how so many traumatic things in your life just chip away at your longevity. We have a lot of stats regarding the health disparities or even death rates regarding Black maternity but what of the Black professional? What about the Black women who aren’t even in a supposedly lofty position like the college or university space?

We don’t have to guess, we know now actually, that the ongoing pandemic highlighted many of the disparities that we are all dealing with as Black people writ large, but the fact so many working-class Black folks have died and are dying still in large numbers should be what makes us sit up and lean forward in alarm, but so many of us either don’t know this information, are being kept from knowing it, or aren’t news hoarders like me and keep running threads of how this pandemic response has been spectacularly bungled (and all of the diseases that have emerged in the meantime in-between time)!!

So, show of hands, who’s tired?

If you raised your hands, you’ve already won half the battle.

I beseech all of you if you’re being harassed, intimidated, or your boundaries are being violated in your workplace, you cannot and should not grin and bear it! The emotional, psychological, and physical damage is accumulating and taking its toll on you. Moreover, beware of how this toll is affecting you: have you checked in with yourself lately, have you eaten today, have you checked in with your relationships, i.e., your children, spouse, etc.? I pray that 2024 presents a new dawn and a new day for Black women to acknowledge that they are overworked, underpaid, and have been carrying far too much weight…their own and everybody else’s.

In memoriam, rest well: Dr. Thea Hunter, Dr. JoAnne Epps, Dr. Orinthia Montague, and Dr. Antoinette Candia-Bailey. Sadly, you all gave and gave until you had nothing left to give. I wish you all had the peace you needed far far sooner.🖤

Recommended reading or listening:

An update, wherein Lincoln University President John Moseley was placed on administrative leave, pending an investigation:



Dani Bethea

Horror Sommelier & Pop Culture Pontificator. Prev EIC: We Are Horror. Published: Studies In the Fantastic + Women of Jenji Kohan + Montréal Monstrum Society .