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Jackie Looney, long vision, and equality

Heaven is not reached at a single bound;

But we build the ladder by which we rise

From the lowly earth, to the vaulted skies,

And we mount to its summit round by round.

-Josiah Gilbert Holland

Dean Jackie Looney retires this year. She was a beacon of opportunity for over 30 years for families who have struggled over generations, who have had the will but maybe not the resources to dream. My family’s history, and our path that converged with Dean Looney, exemplifies the benefit of boosting minority families in higher education, and how that can benefit academia in turn.

In the early 1800s, a man and his pregnant wife were headed west on a slave ship bound for Virginia. When brought to the deck, the man fought for freedom and was killed. The woman looked toward the shore of this nation with the future in her womb. The woman and her newborn daughter became the possession of Reverend French. The daughter and the Reverend had a child named George French, who became my great-great grandfather who lived to see Emancipation.

George married a former slave named Agnes. They had 4 children who traveled to Hinton, West Virginia in a covered wagon with hopes of a better life. One of their children, Josephine French, married Louis Conner: my great-grandfather.

Louis was a proud and unusual Black man. He laced his shoes from top to bottom with the bow near the toe. He completed elementary school and attempted high school but did not finish it. He refused to humble himself in the presence of white men.  He spoke of Black pride at the turn of the 20th Century. In 1913, a group of racists tied Louis to the railroad tracks. All his daughter, Lynn, could recognize were his shoes, laced from the top to the bottom. All that was left of him was his pride.

Lynn, my grandmother, would go on to complete high school. She attempted college but did not finish, married Barny Raglin and gave birth to their daughter Evelyn.

In 1954, on a train bound for Georgia, Evelyn refused to move to the back of the train when it crossed the Mason Dixon Line. She was joined by an aspiring attorney, Andrew D. Jones, who told the attendant of the revised Laws.  Under the new Jim Crow Laws, she was not required to move if she was already seated in the North. Andrew threatened to sue the railroad. The attendant backed down. Andrew joined Evelyn for the rest of the ride, and they became my parents.

My parents completed college. They attempted graduate school, but did not finish.

In upper elementary school I was placed in Educable Mentally Retarded classes. 

When I was 16, I was told that I was not college material, so I could not take college prep courses. I refused to accept dictated limits on my abilities. Determined to go to college, I dropped out of high school and went to Cleveland State University.

At this point, I neither knew arithmetic nor of its role in science. Consequently, I failed the mathematics, physics, and chemistry typically taken by freshmen who major in science. At the end of my fourth quarter, I was academically dismissed with a 0.6 GPA.

However, through self-study, with help from people who hardly knew me, I learned basic mathematics and returned to Cleveland State.

When I was a Mathematics undergraduate, I led rallies against racism at Cleveland State University in 1986. This led me to Dr. Julian Earls, NASA Physicist, and civil rights activist. Earls introduced me to the director of the National Consortium for Educational Access, who introduced me to Dr. Jackie Looney. In 1987 Dr. Looney encouraged me to apply to the Graduate School at Duke University. I did.

Dr. Looney did not stop there. She gave me insight on how to craft a strong application.  I submitted my application with a 3.9 in Math, a 3.7 cum and perfect GRE scores. I was accepted and received a substantial fellowship.

I called Dr. Looney to discuss my options for graduate study. I told her about my other offers, and I recall her stating, “I told them that you had a wife and son to support. I worked my butt off for that fellowship. You better come to Duke.” And so, it was decided. In 1988, I came to Duke University for graduate study.

Dean Looney gave a reception for incoming minority students. When my one-year-old son was tired, she held him. When he fell asleep, she brought him to her office to rest.

Dean Looney did not stop there. She provided mentoring, counseling, and guidance. When I wanted to have a portrait of Julian Able, the Chief Designer of Duke, she provided the way to have the first portrait of an African American commissioned, painted, reproduced and hung at Duke University. It now hangs in the Allen Building lobby (with a plaque) and in the Gothic Reading Room.

It was at Duke that I learned the driving force behind racism, sexism, religious centralism, homophobia, nationalism, etc. A beaten down minority always yields a controlled and oppressed majority.

In 1991 I graduated with a Master of Arts in Mathematics. In 1992 I completed the requirements for a BA in Physics at Duke. I was unable to identify a thesis advisor, so I was asked to resign.

From 1992 to 2012 I moved from lecturer at UNC Chapel Hill, to graduate student at Brown, to full time professor at FAMU. I passed the knowledge gained from these three universities on to my son, the child held by Dean Looney in 1988. He went on to gain a BS in Math and Mechanical Engineering from MIT and then a Masters and PhD in Mechanical Engineering from MIT in 2018. Dr. Looney encouraged him to apply for a faculty position at Duke University. He did.

Dean Looney did not stop there. She gave him insight on how to craft a strong application. In 2021, Andrew D. Jones, III became an assistant professor at Duke University. That same year he landed a two-million-dollar ($2,000,000) grant from NIH.

Dean Looney’s integration of minority families into Duke, and the returns of her actions, are clear. In 1988, she convinced Duke to invest about $60,000 in me. In 2021, the university gained a 2 million dollar benefit thanks to my son.

In 2022, Dean Looney held my grandson Andrew D. Jones, IV. I wish her well on her retirement this year. I pray that Duke University maintains the long-term vision toward equality – the only path to justice and peace.

It is the vision of people like Jackie Looney that emphasizes:

Excellence is not reached at a single generation

But we build the ladder by which we rise

From the slave ship, to the vaulted ceilings at Duke,

And we mount to its summit person by person.

Dr. Andrew D. Jones, Jr., is a Professor of Mathematics at Florida A&M University and a Duke Class of '91 alumn.


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