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On the June morning in 1962 when he graduated from Hampton Institute, Kennell Jackson looked back and smiled.
"At age 20, I had already had what I considered to be one of the most interesting, one of the most alluring, one of the most generous and one of the happiest growing-up periods ever," Jackson says. "I couldn't imagine anyone having anything better in this country."
The associate professor of history spoke about the lasting influences of his early years in the American South at the March 12 session of the bi-monthly "What Matters to Me and Why" series in Memorial Church.
Born into a "striving family" in Farmville, a tobacco-growing and banking hub in southern Virginia, Jackson said he recalled a community of 2,500 African Americans who included small business people, professionals and intellectuals, as well as low-lifes and eccentrics.
"Rural people came to town on Friday and Saturday nights, and the town lit up," he said. "It wasn't Manhattan, but it felt like it."
The community and surrounding towns in Prince Edward County had been home to well-known black educators and the local public schools bore the names of African American historians. Sally Hemmings, consort to President Thomas Jefferson, was born down the road from Jackson's Aunt Christine.
Jackson said he looked forward to the morning routine at his home, where his father, an independent contractor, would gather brick masons, electricians and carpenters to form the working crews who teased and joked with Jackson and his brother before going off to build houses.
But for all the idyllic mornings, there was a dark undercurrent in the region, as well.
"It was fabulous, growing up in this diverse little black community, but it coexisted with a very determined form of segregation," Jackson recalled. "You knew there was a critical mass of black people and a critical mass of white people looking at one another across pretty big racial divides."
The divide would open wide in the struggles over public education that gripped the county in the early 1950s. As the population boomed, black parents appealed for new schools, but their requests were turned down by an all-white school board. Lawsuits were filed and lawyers eventually included the petitions of black families in the historic Brown v. Board of Education. When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in 1954, Jackson didn't know what to expect.
"I remember thinking that our school system would disappear," he said. "It was a frightening prospect because I adored the school system and my teachers."
Rather than integrate its public schools, the county eventually shut them down, from 1959 until 1964. White families sent their children to private academies and black children went wherever their parents could find work.
Jackson was in college by then, and his first encounter with a black academic was memorable. Dressed in dapper suits and pointed shoes, the professor spoke fluent German and French and traveled frequently to Europe.
"I was astonished," Jackson recalls. "He linked us up and made us understand that our experiences as African Americans were not like a subset of the whole human condition, but were the human condition. Because of his travels, he could tell us how black writers and black thinkers fit into all the latest movements."
After graduating from Hampton Institute, Jackson would follow in his mentor's footsteps, doing field research in Kenya, Dahomey and Ghana, and spending a year at Cambridge University as a Fulbright Fellow. Jackson went on to earn a doctorate at the University of California-Los Angeles and came to Stanford in 1969 to teach African history.
Looking back at his childhood in the South, Jackson said he gradually has come to terms with the forces that have had a lasting impact on his professional and personal life.
"I try to do service to the glory days of growing up, and to the segregated world that was quite vicious in many respects," he said. "I've come slowly to be able to balance these two radically different histories occurring in the same place."
But today, he said, he continues to be concerned about widespread unfairness.
"The assumption in 1990 is sometimes that unfairness is a natural system, a part of the natural world, and that there is hardly anything you can do about it," Jackson said. "But when I hear people say, 'Let's be realistic,' it makes me cringe because I know that they're saying, 'Let's be realistic so that we can accept unfairness.'
"I think that today, because I teach at Stanford, my greatest concern is how class and unfairness interact."
At the same time, Jackson said, he feels that as an individual he has been treated fairly overall.
"In the larger sense, I've had a lot of opportunities, done some unusual things, been to great places and educational institutions have been very good to me, by and large.
"You get a lot of little nicks and scratches and over time they become burdensome," he added. "But some of it can be very amusing, too, because sometimes people are really struggling to get to the right place."
By Diane Manuel