A pioneer in the field of African American history and a distinguished scholar and educator, Emma Lou Thornbrough (1913-1994) earned her B.A. and M.A. degrees from Butler University and her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1946. That same year she began a 37-year career at Butler University when she joined the staff as an assistant professor in the history and political science department. Thornbrough retired in 1983 as professor emerita of history. Thornbrough believed “the study of history increases sensitivity and understanding of the present. That’s one of the most important reasons for studying any history.”
Over the course of her career at Butler, Thornbrough received numerous honors, including a 1955–56 Ford Faculty Fellowship for research in African American history, the Outstanding Professor Award in 1965, and the Butler Medal in 1981. In 1994 she received an award for scholarly distinction from the American Historical Association.
As a civil rights activist, Thornbrough worked with a number of local organizations, including the Indiana Civil Liberties Union and the Indianapolis National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP honored Thornbrough for her commitment to racial equality and service to the African-American community with the Roy Wilkins Award in 1991.