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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Blyden Jackson, June 27, 1991. Interview L-0051. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Decision to leave Southern University to teach at UNC-Chapel Hill

Jackson discusses his decision to leave his position at Fisk University to teach at Southern University in 1954, the second largest African American university next to Howard University. Jackson stayed at Southern University for fifteen years before leaving to become the first African American professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In fact, when he accepted the position, Jackson became the first African American professor at a traditionally white university in the Southeast. In so doing, Jackson alludes to some of the conflicts he felt about his decision, citing the broader context of the "brain drain" on African American universities as white colleges and universities sought to integrate their faculties.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Blyden Jackson, June 27, 1991. Interview L-0051. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

More than one school was approaching me and trying to get me to come as head of an English department. English department's at Negro colleges then were constantly on the search for doctorates. And I actually didn't have Southern on my mind, but I was on my way to teach the summer at Texas Southern University. I agreed to stop off at Southern, and when I looked at that situation—I guess I can honestly say this. How can I put it? I'll just put it frankly. The contrast between what I knew about the English department at Fisk—small though it was, it was an excellent department—and what I found at Southern, which was a much larger school, seemed to me to be just a sort of challenge. So I left a school I liked very much and went to Southern. Southern and Howard were the largest schools among Negroes. That was in 1954, and I tried to do the best job I could of recruiting there for the English faculty and also I, like any good department head, any department who wants to be worthy of his salt, I tried to work on the conditions for my University. When Southern at last begin to multiple its deans, they had one dean, of course, when I went there, but Negro schools were getting larger and getting different. So they'd started a graduate program at Southern, and they made me graduate dean. That was in the early '50s. I forget the exact year. I think it was '53. I worked at that. Then in 1958 a very attractive woman came down to Southern. She had completed a doctorate at NYC, and she agreed to marry me. I'd never been married. I was already forty-seven years old. But I married her. She's been a very fine wife. We stayed there at Southern until in the late '50s and early '60s, more really in the '60s, white schools began to try to recruit Negro teachers. Well, anyone who is familiar with this, and has some knowledge of the history of the Negro in America, knows that at that time there were Negroes who were involved by what they called the "brain drain." That is, they knew how strong the attraction might well be for their holders of doctorates to desert Negro schools and go to white schools, could envision what would happen. My wife and I were very much aware of the brain drain, and we thought there was some substance to the fear. But Southern had a fairly large number of doctorates. We kept getting offers from white schools. I won't name some of them. Finally, it came down to, for us, certainly for me, the question between two schools. I won't name the other one, but it was dear to me, two white schools. But a member of the faculty at UNC talked to me, a marvelous man, Louis Ruben, and I turned aside from the school that had really wanted to go to. Very much touched by his argument that if I came to Chapel Hill, I would do more than integrate the faculty of Chapel Hill. That I would precipitate what could well be a break through in the whole southeast, because other schools, he pointed out, in the southeast tended to follow Chapel Hill's example. There were no Negro professors in any school in the southeast, and if Chapel Hill hired one, or some…
FREDDIE L. PARKER:
UNC did not have a black professor before you came in 1969?
BLYDEN JACKSON:
No.
FREDDIE L. PARKER:
Is that right?
BLYDEN JACKSON:
There was no black professor in any school in the southeast. There was only one black professor at that time in any school in the south and he was in Texas. He was a marvelous man. I'm sorry that you didn't have the opportunity to know him. He has been dead for years. He was, incidentally, a North Carolinian by birth. He was protegee of Odem and Vance, right here at the University. Name was Henry Allen Bullock. He taught at Texas Southern. The year before I came here, he accepted a job at the University of Texas. So he was really the first Negro professor to my knowledge anywhere in the south. And to my knowledge, I was the first in the southeast.