Editor’s note: This article was published in honor of the University’s 225th anniversary. Throughout the year, we shared profiles of some of the many Tar Heels who have left their heelprint on the campus, their communities, the state, the nation and the world.
Blyden Jackson graduated from high school at the same age that most of us start high school. He went off to college at age 14, got a job teaching middle school students during the Great Depression, and earned a fellowship to “speed up the process” of getting a doctorate, which would allow him to become a university professor.
The path Jackson walked was one that had virtually never been walked before, not only because of the rate at which he completed his studies, but because Jackson was a black man in the segregated South. The grandson of slaves, Jackson came of age when the legacy of slavery continued to saturate everyday life.
Still, he pursued his goals with unyielding perseverance, eventually becoming the first tenured black faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the late 1960s, he was also the first African-American faculty member at any historically white university in the region.
“A member of the faculty at UNC talked to me, a marvelous man, Louis Rubin… [I was] very much touched by his argument that if I came to Chapel Hill, I would do more than integrate the faculty of Chapel Hill,” Jackson said in a 1991 interview with the Southern Oral Historical Program. “That I would precipitate what could well be a breakthrough in the whole Southeast, because other schools, he pointed out, in the Southeast tended to follow Chapel Hill’s example.”
Jackson’s wife, Roberta, became the first black tenure-track faculty member in Carolina’s School of Education the following year, in 1970, and the two of them began to make their mark on the University.
Blyden taught English and established the study of African-American literature at Carolina, while Roberta taught education and later became the first tenured black woman in the Division of Academic Affairs. Blyden later served as assistant dean of the Graduate School, where he worked to advance the recruitment of black faculty members and students across campus.
Today’s students might know Blyden and Roberta’s names from the University’s admissions building, named after the Jacksons in honor of their groundbreaking service to Carolina. But their legacy lives on in other ways, too.
The Blyden and Roberta Jackson Fellowship has supported students who have gone on to study topics such as elegy in Caribbean-American literature, the rhetoric of jazz in relation to the Civil Rights Movement, the influence of medical discourse in late 19th century African-American literature and Gothic aesthetics in contemporary trans-Atlantic literature.