Legacy of Learning
Maurice Adkins receives 2018 Shapiro Scholarship
On a boiling, but beautiful, late summer day just after the start of school at the University of Cincinnati, Maurice Adkins takes a seat in a relatively quiet corner of a bustling campus Starbucks. Over the din of rowdy undergrads, Adkins describes his research on the origins of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in North Carolina.
Adkins is mere months away from completing his doctorate.
In April of 2018, he received the The Herbert Shapiro Scholarship in African-American History, a $2,000 award that will support him as he completes his dissertation. He’s carrying a paperback: Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890.
Does he insist that his students read paper books? Adkins nods.
“I guess you can say I am old-fashioned,” he replies. “Reading from an electronic device can be distracting. I rather have a physical book in-hand. Dust and all.”
You’re a historian.
“Yes,” he says. “I’m a historian.”
Herbert Shapiro, a legendary lecturer and civil rights activist, taught history at UC for 35 years, beginning in 1965 until his retirement in 2001. Shapiro and his wife, Judy, had firsthand experience with the Civil Rights Movement. They both knew Martin Luther King Jr. and attended his funeral following his assassination. Shapiro participated in the historic protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. When Shapiro passed away in 2012, Judy provided the initial gift to seed the Shapiro scholarship fund and additional gifts endowed the scholarship.
A beloved professor, Shapiro was known for hosting spirited lectures in his home; he would speak to riveted students while Judy served refreshments.
“It’s an honor to receive this scholarship,” Adkins said. “It’s a great honor to be provided with funding towards this project. It's a great honor to have people who are dedicated to the study of African-American history and providing support to research that can have an impact in the field.”
Originally from rural North Carolina, Adkins remembers a summer he couldn’t find a job and instead decided to fill his time by reading a set of World Book Encyclopedias that his parents bought from a door-to-door salesman.
“The eighth grade is where I gained my interest in history. My eighth grade teacher—she was awesome,” Adkins said. “She taught history from a perspective that was both entertaining and passionate, and so I was like I want to become a historian, and she told me, ‘You know what? You should become a doctor, a Doctor of Philosophy in history.’ “In the back of my mind, I was like, ‘What the hell is that?’”
A first generation college student, Adkins began his undergraduate studies as an engineering major, but gradually, made his way to his real passion: history. Adkins earned a B.A. at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (A&T), the largest HBCU in the nation and a MA from East Tennessee State University.
In front of the historic Dudley Building on the A&T campus stands a statue of the “Greensboro Four:” Jibreel Khazan, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond. In February of 1960, the four led a sit-in at a Woolworth’s. When they were denied service at the lunch counter, they refused to leave, sparking sit-ins and demonstrations nationwide and culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act later that same year.
The monument ignited Adkins’s curiosity about the origins and significance of HBCUs. How did these institutions get started, he wondered? How did they endure? Adkins brought this curiosity with him when he started his PhD at UC. North Carolina, Adkins said, has five public, four-year, historically black colleges—more than any other state in the country.
“And so I had a question, why do they exist in the first place?” Adkins said. “What was the difference between North Carolina and the rest of the southern states, the former Confederacy? I started following these working relationships, these African Americans who were politically influential in North Carolina.”
Adkins’s dissertation spans from the 1860s–1930s, looking at how black leaders navigated the racial politics of the period, particularly individuals like James Dudley, the second president of North Carolina A&T and James Shepard, the founder and president of the first state-supported liberal arts college for African Americans in the country, North Carolina Central University.
“After the Civil War,” Adkins said. “White southerners were receptive to African Americans getting an agricultural and mechanical education, but apprehensive about liberal arts education out of fear that it would instill a form of superiority and encourage them to seek occupations beyond field labor. They also wanted southerners teaching blacks rather than northerners, fearing that northern teachers were radicalizing their black pupils and encouraging them to seek further rights and privileges.”
Tracy Teslow, PhD, a faculty member in UC’s history department and Adkins’s adviser, says that his research “opens a window into the complexities of class and race and labor in America between the years of 1870 and 1930” before Brown vs. the Board of Education – before segregation became illegal. North Carolina has an interesting story: “African Americans wanted good schools for their children and white leaders knew that education was critical for North Carolina to prosper,” she said. “It’s a complicated story about racism and segregation but also cooperation.”
Today, HBCUs face real challenges, but also occupy an important place in the higher education landscape. According to Adkins, only a small percentage of African Americans – about 9 percent – attend HBCUs; most, he says, attend - predominantly white institutions. It’s challenging, Adkins continued, to maintain funding for HBCUs.
“Some say they should be shut down,” Adkins said. “Some say they should be restructured or consolidated. But there still are justifications for these institutions. These institutions still provide opportunities to first-generation college students and those individuals who may not meet the criteria of majority universities. Also, these institutions have created moments and memories that have lasted for generations and still provide that family culture that has existed on these campuses since their inception. Today these institutions produce the most black engineers, accountants, lawyers, doctors and more. I see these institutions as a valuable piece of our history. They’re African American monuments.”
Teaching and empowering
“The idea of African-American history at UC was a product of Herb Shapiro’s personal and professional commitment to the then-emerging subtopic of American history in the 1960s,” says Christopher Phillips, PhD, John and Dorothy Hermanies Professor of American History at UC and University Distinguished Professor in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. “We can thank Herb as a pioneer and a visionary, whose legacy is now recognized by the scholarship that bears his name. The Shapiro scholarship is a vital resource, and a perfect legacy of a career dedicated to bringing African-American history into the mainstream of American history. Maurice Adkins’s work on African-American educational and economic politics in the Jim Crow South is an equally perfect example of the vital research and writing that the Shapiro scholarship makes possible.”
Shapiro passed away just one year before Adkins arrived on campus. Sadly, the two never met, Adkins said. But still, he feels connected to Shapiro’s legacy.
Adkins hopes to one day lead an HBCU himself, as a president. But his real passion, he says, is for teaching. Historical knowledge is empowering, a crucial foundation for improving the future. Adkins says he is looking forward to completing his dissertation, becoming a professor and spending time in the classroom and in the community sharing his knowledge of history.
“I think as a historian; the profession is twofold. It’s our duty to not only engage people within the classroom, but outside the classroom as well. Our knowledge, for the most part is kept in academic circles but readily disseminated in our neighborhoods,” Adkins said. “I think my job, my mission, is to get the information out there to people who are not in college. Get it to the streets. Get it to the neighborhoods. Hand the information out for free, if possible. The sharing and exchange of information has always been crucial to our development.”