John Warner Smith is the second University of Louisiana at Lafayette graduate in a row designated Louisiana Poet Laureate.
Dr. James Jackson received a C in geography, but history put him on the map.
Jackson was the first African-American to earn a graduate degree from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Between his admission in 1959 and his graduation with a master’s degree in educational administration and supervision in 1963, he was among a small number of students of color at the University.
Speaking at Edith Garland Dupré Library on Tuesday, Jackson revealed that the major struggle he faced while a graduate student wasn’t related to his enrollment’s pathbreaking nature, however. It was that C in geography.
“It wasn’t my fault,” he said, the irritation still evident more than a half-century later. The professor read exam questions to students rather than using a printed test, Jackson explained. He read them twice, and only twice, before moving on to the next query.
Jackson never had taken an exam that way, and the professor used the same method on subsequent tests. The Cs mounted and, when averaged, enshrined the middling mark on Jackson’s transcript.
Jackson nevertheless earned his master’s degree and two additional diplomas, including a doctorate in elementary education from LSU. He went on to a career as a teacher and administrator with the Lafayette Parish public school system, ultimately becoming an assistant superintendent.
Persistence was a common theme during Jackson’s appearance Tuesday at a luncheon with graduate students. The event was sponsored by the James Jackson Community of Scholars.
The joint project between the University’s Office of Campus Diversity and Graduate School provides academic and social support to underrepresented and minority grad students. It’s named for James Jackson to honor his groundbreaking status in University history, said Dr. Mary Farmer-Kaiser, dean of the Graduate School.
Bettye Jackson, a retired teacher who earned multiple education graduate degrees from UL Lafayette, joined her husband for a 50-minute conversation that was part history lesson and part pep talk.
The Jacksons met while both were undergraduates at Grambling State University. After earning a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science and a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, James Jackson decided to attend graduate school. He wrote letters to two colleges. He received a reply from only one – Southwestern Louisiana Institute, now UL Lafayette.
It was 1959. Southwestern had integrated five years before; the student body remained mostly white, however. But Jackson said SLI’s supportive administration – and its reputation for tough academics – drew him to campus. He commuted daily from Crowley, where he and Bettye were living with an infant daughter.
“If you finished from UL, you could go anyplace. It was rough. You had some excellent teachers here. They would work you. Work. Work. Work. Work. I had calluses between my fingers, blisters from writing so much,” recounted Jackson, now 85.
Bettye began typing his class notes and assignments to relieve his aching hands, but Jackson said support at home wasn’t the only way he persevered. He found encouragement from fellow graduate students, too.
“If you try to do it alone, you are not going to make it,” he said.
Bettye Jackson echoed her husband’s sentiments. “Even though there were many times I was the only person of color in the class, there were people who encouraged me. After a while, everybody looked the same. We were all on the same level. We looked at one another as individuals who could succeed.
“There were people here at UL that showed an interest in me,” she continued. “You know why? Because I was interested in myself. That makes a difference. If people see that you want to do well for yourself, people will help you.”
Hollis Conway moderated the conversation with the Jacksons. He’s the assistant director for Diversity, Leadership and Education in the Office of Campus Diversity. Conway underscored the Jacksons’ message of finding support from peers.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out. You aren’t going to do it by yourself, but success isn’t meant to be something accomplished by yourself. It’s about people. It’s about relationships. Please take that (lesson) with you from what they said.”
Emily Covington did. She’s pursuing a master’s degree in communications, and was among the 40-plus graduate students who attended Tuesday’s talk.
“No matter what obstacles you encounter in graduate school, or in any degree program at all, with enough perseverance and enough hard work you can overcome it.
“He was the first person of color to get a graduate degree from here,” Covington continued, referring to James Jackson. “So, if he can push through the struggles the average grad student faces – and being one of the only people of color in the classroom – then we all can absolutely do it, too.”
Photo caption: Dr. James Jackson answers a question during a luncheon with graduate students Tuesday in Edith Garland Dupré Library. At right is Bettye Jackson. Both are UL Lafayette alumni. (Photo credit: Doug Dugas / University of Louisiana at Lafayette)