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UNC’s first Black tenured professors left behind an impactful legacy

Jackson Hall Undergraduate Admissions

Jackson Hall, home to undergraduate admissions, is named after Blyden and Roberta Jackson,  two of the first Black faculty members on campus to receive tenure and some of the first African-American professors in the Southeast. 

Among other precedents set at UNC, two of the first Black faculty members on campus to receive tenure were also some of the first African-American professors in the Southeast. Blyden and Roberta Jackson, who both died over 18 years ago, still have a legacy on UNC's campus.

After graduating high school at the age of 14, Blyden Jackson went to Columbia University in New York but returned after his father's salary was cut. A job then became available to him in a nontraditional and tragic way. Juliette Delacott, who was the Assistant Dean of Women at Fisk University, was in a car accident and all of the physicians in the area were white. Because she was a Black woman, they refused to help her, and she died as a result. Blyden Jackson took her place.

While teaching, Blyden Jackson spent the summers working on his master’s and doctorate degrees.

“Almost any teacher, it seems to me, who goes to summer school has, among other things in his mind, the fear of not doing well because he's afraid that the students he's teaching back at home will find out that he's having trouble at school himself,” Blyden Jackson told the Southern Oral Historical Program in a 1991 interview.

He received a Rosenwald Fellowship with the aid of the president of Fisk University and completed his doctorate at the University of Michigan in 1952. 

He said he met his wife, Roberta, in 1958.

“She had completed a doctorate at NYC, and she agreed to marry me," he said. "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.”

In 1969, he accepted a position at UNC, becoming the first African-American professor at UNC and the first Black faculty member at a traditionally white university in the region. He later served as associate dean of the Graduate School.

Roberta Jackson became the first tenured Black woman in the Division of Academic Affairs after joining UNC as an associate professor in the School of Education in 1974. 

“I will say that it is important for academia ─ students, faculty, staff, administrators, etc. ─ to reflect the demographic breadth and intellectual richness of the larger society, especially in the case of a public university such as UNC,” said Claude Clegg, a Lyle V. Jones Distinguished Professor in the Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies.

The focus on having tenured African-American faculty members at a public university was not just an important issue in the 1970s, but today as well.

“This kind of equity and representation lends credibility and a certain kind of moral and cultural grounding to the University and its mission, in addition to a greater range of knowledge and experiences that students, faculty, administrators, and others can bring to bear in pursuing the stated mission and purpose of the institution,” Clegg said.

In honor of their service to UNC, the University named the admissions building after the Jacksons, and their friends and colleagues established the Blyden and Roberta Graduate Fellowship Fund in the College of Arts and Sciences in 1989. 


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