The following article includes excerpts from a College of Arts and Sciences’ website feature, posted April 21, 2009.

Roberta and Blyden Jackson, from The Carolina Story: A Virtual Museum of University History.
Roberta and Blyden Jackson, from The Carolina Story: A Virtual Museum of University History.

In 1989, the Blyden and Roberta Jackson Graduate Fellowship Fund was established in the College of Arts and Sciences by friends and colleagues of the couple, who were instrumental in advancing Carolina’s early African-American faculty to tenure-track positions and recruiting minority students to study in Chapel Hill.

In 2008, Keiko Ito made a generous gift of $370,000 to the Jackson Fellowship, fully funding it. Her gift honored the life of her late husband, Japanese businessman Masami Ito. The family’s Japan-to-Carolina ties began with Keiko and Masami Ito’s daughter, Akiyo, who came to Chapel Hill in 1992 to pursue her interest in African-American and Southern literature. With the guidance and support of her mentor, English professor emeritus J. Lee Greene, Akiyo completed a master’s and doctoral degree in African-American literature in the department of English. Her father traveled to Chapel Hill to see his daughter receive her Ph.D. degree. He died in 2008.

Akiyo consulted with Greene about a gift that her mother, Keiko Ito, wanted to make to UNC in honor of her father. The Itos designated their gift to the Blyden and Roberta Jackson Fellowship and the Peppers Scholarship for undergraduates. “My father spent his adult life trying to help others, and this memorial gift continues his wishes and legacy,” Akiyo said.

Masami was born in Yokosuka, Japan, on March 19, 1926, to a Navy surgeon. He entered the Naval Academy at age 15, and after graduating, was assigned to the battleship Yamato. When the battleship embarked on its final suicide mission, the captain ordered all 38 midshipmen off the ship, saving their lives and challenging them to make use of their lives and to do good for others. Masami and his fellow midshipmen were only 19 years old. He never forgot that incident and the captain’s challenge, which he spent the rest of his life determined to fulfill, Akiyo said.

“My dad was a loving and supportive husband and father,” Akiyo said. “For most of his life, my father worked as a businessman for trading companies, with assignments in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and other parts of Asia. During and following World War II, relations between Japan and other countries were strained. For more than 30 years, my father committed himself not only to doing business, but also to building lasting friendships with the people all over Asia.”

Greene called Akiyo “a first-rate student who was well-versed in African-American literature.” She is now a professor of African-American literature at a Japanese university.

“Akiyo is a wonderful person, and to know that a former student has that much faith and trust in me to help guide this process — that’s very rewarding,” said Greene, a triple-degree holder from UNC who taught at his alma mater for 30 years and directed Akiyo’s master’s and doctoral dissertations.

“This gratifying gift attests to the professional and personal relationships that our outstanding faculty, represented by Professor Greene, build with their students, both graduate and undergraduate,” said William L. Andrews, E. Maynard Adams Professor of English. “In this case, African-American literary study, which has been a hallmark of Carolina’s curriculum since Blyden Jackson came here, is the beneficiary.  The College of Arts and Sciences is deeply grateful to the Ito family.”

Blyden and Roberta Jackson

Blyden Jackson, a scholar of African-American literature who joined the UNC department of English in 1969, was one of the first black faculty members at the University and the first to attain the rank of full professor. His wife, Roberta, became the first black tenure-track faculty member in the School of Education the following year. They retired together in 1981. Roberta died in 1999, followed by Blyden in 2000.

The grandson of former enslaved men and women, Blyden established the study of African-American literature as a field of undergraduate and graduate study at UNC. He also served as the assistant dean of the Graduate School, where he promoted the recruitment and retention of minority graduate students and worked to secure scholarships and fellowships for graduate students.

The first Blyden and Roberta Jackson Fellow was named in 2012.  Since then, Jackson Fellows have studied such topics 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.

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