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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 >>

Early education, teaching at Fisk, and an opportunity to complete graduate work

Jackson describes his initial graduate work at Columbia University, followed by his return to Kentucky and his work for the WPA in Louisville during the Great Depression. In 1945, Jackson was hired to teach at Fisk University, where his interactions with Charles S. Johnson enabled him to complete his doctoral work at the University of Michigan.

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

I went to New York and entered Columbia. It was in the height of the Depression. They were even cutting teachers' salaries, and when they cut my father's salary, although he didn't say anything about it, I decided to come home. So I never did take a master's at Columbia. When I got home, I faced the problem of trying to get a job myself. It took me about two years to get a regular job. My first job, by the way, was a WPA job, and I've always bridled when anyone in my hearing attacked the WPA. I'm very pro WPA. But I got a regular job teaching school in Louisville at a junior high school in 1934. Let me digress again for a moment. The job I got was actually the job that had been vacated by Juliette Delacott. It may well be that some of my hearers don't know who Juliette Delacott was. She was a very fine young Assistant Dean of Women at Fisk University, who was accompanying some students in a car that was traveling along the road from Nashville to Atlanta, when the car was involved in an accident and she was terribly injured. But no physician—there were only white physicians that lived in that area—no physician would attend her, and she died as a direct result of that accident. But back to my own story. So I became a member of the Fisk faculty, first to replace her, but very quickly I was hired as a permanent member of the faculty. I had been working in the summers on a doctorate at Michigan, and once I got to Fisk, I continued working on the doctorate. This was the Fisk of Charles S. Johnson, and he shortly became president after I went there. And he was very influential in getting fellowships. He [Laughter] probably sat on virtually every board that had anything to do with Negro education. I wish I had time here to tell you about my interview with him when I went into…
By all means, please do.
Well, I went in. I knew about his power, and I had decided, as anyone with any common sense could, that it was virtually the height of folly, if you wanted advance of any sort, to continue to serve on a college or university faculty without a doctorate [Laughter] . You didn't the degree, right, right. [unclear] And I wanted to speed up the process of getting a doctorate, and I remember going in to see Dr. Johnson, for whom I had the highest respect. I never found him, as some people said he was, I never found him cold. I thought he was very human, and I also thought he was very, very shrewd. And I remember going in. He was on the Rosenwald Board, and as you know, the Rosenwald Board gave fellowships. I wanted a Rosenwald Fellowship, and I talked to him, I'm sure, for at least twenty minutes. He was sitting behind his desk. He smoked cigarettes, and he was puffing on his cigarette, one cigarette after another. And his face was impassive, and my heart was sinking lower and lower and lower. Finally I decided that I had shot my [unclear] . I felt I'd lost it, but I didn't think it had traveled very far. And so I got up and my heart was in my boots. I sort of backed toward the door, and he was still sitting there impassively. And just as I started to turn and put my hand on the door knob and go out, he called me. He called me back. Well, at that time Fisk had for its freshman something called the writing laboratory, and I was the director of the writing laboratory. And he called me back, and said, "Mr. Jackson, before you leave I wanted your recommendation. We're going to have to have a new director of the writing laboratory next year, and whom would you recommend?" And I [Laughter] couldn't recommend. I just said, "Oh, thank you, sir. Thank you, sir," because I knew he was telling me that I had the fellowship. But I went on. I got the fellowship. And I'm still puffing myself. Actually, I didn't need it. What had happened was that the man who was chairman of the Department of English at Michigan at the time, a very distinguished scholar named Wendell, one of the greatest scholars of all time in English Neoclassism, had apparently noticed me and noticed me with some favor. And he told me, "You know, Mr. Jackson," he talked rather abruptly, "Mr. Jackson, we get lots of university fellowships at Michigan, and I'm on that board." [Laughter] And I got a university fellowship, and I had this Rosenwald Fellowship. So I took my leave of absence just almost dancing on air and went back to Michigan. And much to my delight, for the second year the Rosenwald people just extended my fellowship. Then the university fellows extended my fellowship. So that I spent my last two years at Michigan the beneficiary of these two fellowships and completed my residence work feeling almost like [unclear] . Came back to Fisk to resume my teaching there, and I completed my doctorate by writing the rest of my thesis.