National Institute on Aging

The First Black Student to Earn a Ph.D. in History at the University of Southern Mississippi

BlairIn 1965, Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong and Raylawni Branch were the first Black students to enroll at the University of Southern Mississippi. Now a half century later, Tonya De’Nee Blair is the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in history from the university.

Dr. Blair earned her undergraduate degree at the Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina and currently teaches African American studies at a high school in North Carolina. Her research is focused on post-Reconstruction southern history.

In speaking out her time at the University of Southern Mississippi, Dr. Blair said “I really enjoyed the community here. It was hospitable and supportive. I thank the staff of the graduate school and my dissertation adviser. He supported me from day one and never gave up on me.”


Comments (4)

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  1. Adelaide Solomon-Jordan says:

    I really despair that we are still in the “first black”
    time but, as a fellow historian I am thrilled for you.

    Congratulations and best wishes!!

  2. caribbean queen says:

    “first black” indeed. as we stand at the threshold of 2016, no less. this is a truly sad statement on the status quo at that institution. what must this person have endured in order to achieve her goal?

  3. Unless you had the privilege of being a student of Dr. Blair, you would not understand. The sucking of the teeth and the rolling of the eyes don’t phase her. Dr. Blair is a leader, and, quite frankly, she is unmoved by the criticism of those who haven’t the esteem of being named the first Black anything, let alone woman, and don’t leave out phD! The last thing Dr. Blair needs is veiled contempt. After all, had it been so easy, either of you could have done it! There is so much about this phenomenal woman you will never know. Luckily for you both, you’re gonna read all about it! Start with her dissertation. Expect to see this living, breathing, moving, live-and-in-living-color piece of Black History exceed your expectations even further! I had no idea Lot was a polygamist! The two of you are mighty salty! Since you’re in a hatin’ mood, please feel free to hate me, the student who sat in the front row, absolutely captivated with this phenomenal woman. She has finally done what we KNEW she could do! What are you doing? Oh, that’s right: commiserating, wallowing in your shared jealousy, and NOT being named the first Black person (and a WOMAN, no less) in HISTORY to earn your phD from the University of Southern Mississippi! Carry on, ladies! #SMTTT #VikingPride

  4. Felicia B. says:

    I think the other two previous individuals that posted were simply saying it is sad that in this time period we still have to use the term ‘First Black’ during this era. It makes you see just how far it seems we have to go but they are also very proud of her accomplishments. I did not get the impression they were ‘hating’ in any way. I read the article and thought how awesome of an accomplishment it was but could not believe she was the ‘First Black Student’ to receive a Ph D in this field. WOW ! It reminds you of another time period when people did not think we could because they did not know the legacy of royalty that we come from.

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