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Throughout her work as an academic, educator, social activist, and public servant, Deborah Partridge Wolfe (December 22, 1916–September 3, 2004) taught respect for all people and tried to inspire in her students a willingness to recognize the equality of each individual.

Wolfe received her bachelor’s degree in social studies education from Jersey City State Teachers College and her master’s degree in teacher and rural education from Teachers College, Columbia University. While taking courses, she taught night adult education and spent two summers teaching the children of migrant workers on the eastern shore of Maryland.

After graduating from Teachers College, Wolfe joined the faculty of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. During her 12 years there, she established and served as principal of two laboratory schools, worked as a supervising teacher, and headed up the Department of Elementary Education. She received her Ed.D. degree during a leave of absence from Tuskegee Institute. Upon her return, Wolfe became the first female faculty member of the school with an earned doctorate. She founded and served as director of the school’s graduate program in education.

Wolfe left Tuskegee Institute in 1950 to become a faculty member at Queens College, City University of New York at which she taught until her retirement in 1984. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, Wolfe also held visiting lecturer positions at Grambling College, New York University, Fordham University, University of Michigan, Teachers College, Texas College, University of Illinois, and Wayne State University. From 1962 to 1965, Wolfe served as Education Chief of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor chaired by Adam Clayton Powell.

Wolfe belonged to and actively participated in over 70 programs, societies, and organizations. Her membership in Kappa Delta Pi particularly was distinguished. Initiated by William Chandler Bagley in 1938, Wolfe served as chapter counselor at Queens College for 20 years and, at the time of her death, was the oldest living member of the Society. Other groups in which she was involved include the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the League of Women Voters, Lisle Fellowship Board, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Alliance of Black School Educators, the New Jersey Board of Higher Education, the New Jersey Board of Education, and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority.

Through her activities, Wolfe achieved many “firsts” for an African-American female. She became the first African-American woman to be named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to become a member and later chair of the New Jersey State Board of Higher Education, and to serve as a member of the Educational Foundation and Laureate Counselor of Kappa Delta Pi. She was the only African-American member of Seton Hall University Board of Regents, the advisory board to Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College, the Coordinating Council on Education for New Jersey, and the board of the American Association of University Women. In appreciation for her lifelong commitment to education, institutions awarded Wolfe more than 26 honorary doctorates. She was named to the Laureate Chapter of Kappa Delta Pi in 1988. A high school in Macon County, Alabama and a dormitory at Trenton State College in New Jersey were named in her honor.

Reflecting on how her gender affected her career, Wolfe posited that if she had been a man, she might have been a minister first and a teacher second. As it happened, she became a teacher first and a preacher later in life. While teaching at Queens, Wolfe studied theology at Union Theological Seminary and was ordained to the Christian ministry in 1970 and served as Associate Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Cranford, New Jersey. In her retirement, she taught feminist theology as a visiting scholar and lecturer at Princeton Theological Seminary. She was the first woman elected President of the New Jersey Convention of Progressive Baptists and served as Parliamentarian for the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Wolfe enjoyed her “career” as mother and grandmother, spending time with her son and grandchildren.

Wolfe published more than 65 journal articles and contributed to and edited all the writings associated with educational legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor from 1962–1965. Wolfe’s scholarly writings consistently focused on curriculum issues related to democracy and education, specifically addressing rural education, culturally deprived children, migrant workers, human relations, and social justice.

Throughout her career, Wolfe argued that the basic and abiding moral purpose of democracy is respect for the individual human being and recognition of the equality of each person regardless of race, creed, gender, or social class. She expressed concern that the culture of schools reflected the controlling ideas, values, and sentiments of middle-class European-American society and overlooked the needs of migrant children, rural students, inner-city African-American students, and other disadvantaged or disenfranchised groups. She asserted that education should serve as the great equalizer in society and recommended culturally relevant curricular approaches designed to address the needs of all students, to teach democracy, and to improve the equality and quality of education.

When asked to reflect on her own contributions to education, Wolfe summed up her career by saying:

My legacy to education? Well, that’s hard to put into words. It’s rather like writing your epitaph. . . . I would certainly hope they would believe that here is a woman who gave her all to education in the fullest sense of the word . . . who attempted to empower every individual to the point that they understand their strengths and weaknesses and are willing to share themselves with others—a teacher who was concerned with each individual with whom she interacted, recognizing that no two are alike. It is important to study each person carefully, be hesitant about over-generalizing, and allow each individual to grow in new directions. That I was a woman who knew and enjoyed a wide range of ideas and areas of human knowledge. And above all, that I was a woman who loved and truly cared about people, and who believed strongly ‘of one blood God made all to dwell on the face of the earth.’ I’d go to the end of the earth to help people understand that color, race, creed, and formal conditions of servitude are only superficial. We are one.

Contributed by: Stephanie van Hover, University of Virginia


van Hover, S. D. 2001. Deborah Partridge Wolfe’s contributions to social education. Ph.D. diss. University of Florida, Gainsville.

van Hover, S. D. 2003. Deborah Partridge Wolfe and education for democracy. Theory and Research in Social Education 31(1): 105–31.

van Hover, S. D. 2002. Deborah Partridge Wolfe. In Building a Legacy: Women in Social Education 1784–1984, ed. M. S. Crocco and O. L. Davis, 133–34. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies.

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