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Daphne Chamberlain: A Scholar-Activist Sparks Change in Mississippi

Dolls lined along the floor, chalk in hand, lesson planed. Daphne Chamberlain, Ph.D., recalls the day she got in trouble for writing on her door with chalk while teaching her dolls. This memory would come to play an important role in leading Chamberlain to find her calling.

Chamberlain, however, did not always want to teach. Her mother, Jean Chamberlain, Ph.D., was an English professor, and for many years, Daphne tried to run away from teaching. She had a strong desire to forge her own path—one that was different from that of her parents. She considered becoming a civil rights litigation or public interest attorney. But three dynamic history professors challenged her to think critically during her undergraduate years at Tougaloo College, which led her to reconsider becoming a professor.

“I realized that teaching was my calling, and I embraced my calling,” Chamberlain says. “I was able to come back to Tougaloo and give back to students just like my professors gave to me.”

Inspired by her family members’ own personal stories and history, Chamberlain realized it was her destiny to become a history professor and civil rights activist. She grew up listening to stories about her maternal grandmother and great aunt who purchased land during the Great Depression and later built a store, Burks Grocery, in Utica, Miss. The store served as a resource to the Black community in the town. Her paternal grandfather shared stories with her about growing up during the Jim Crow era and the black experience in Mississippi.

“When I think about those stories, I think about the first time I read about Emmitt Till, which was in fifth grade,” Chamberlain says.

She would eagerly check the mail on the first day of school for the “Jet” magazine to see the latest music. Much to her surprise, however, she came face to face with the disturbing image of Emmitt Till’s body on a page commemorating the anniversary of his death. “As I was flipping through to the top albums and singles, I saw one of the most disturbing images I could have ever seen in my life,” Chamberlain says. This encounter, along with her love for history, and her family’s stories led her to a career in history and civil rights.

Her interest in history and the Civil Rights Movement has opened many doors. She has served as the director of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) Civil Rights Education Center at Jackson State University, was active in the development of the Mississippi Museum of Civil Rights, and currently serves as assistant provost/vice president for academic affairs and director of Civil Rights and Social Justice Initiatives at Tougaloo College.

After graduating with a bachelor’s in history from Tougaloo, Chamberlain pursued master’s and doctorate programs in history at the University of Mississippi. She centered her dissertation research on children’s participation in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Freedom Summer. Despite being told her research was a project that wasn’t doable, she pressed forward and proved otherwise, conducting her research. Her pushback: “Why not study children’s roles in one of the most oppressive states concerning civil rights?”

Her work since completing her dissertation entitled “And a Child Shall Lead” has been a continuation of this research. Chamberlain is also currently working on converting her dissertation into a book.

Today, the professor considers herself a scholar-activist. Chamberlain shared, “What that means is that I have a responsibility to my community but also to my profession as a Black woman. As a Black woman, my concern is making sure that every Black and brown child is getting every opportunity afforded to them.”

Chamberlain strives to ensure students understand their history, capacity and social responsibility. She serves as the advisor for the Tougaloo College NAACP where she has watched students grow and become actively involved in their communities. Her students have organized protests around critical issues such as the Mississippi state flag, which has been steeped in controversy over its confederate image. Her students have promoted change in the areas of worker’s rights, education, voting rights and healthcare.

She also served as the co-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Sumer Youth Congress, a summit that brought more than 400 students together from across the nation and various backgrounds to share the issues impacting their communities. During the summit, students used their unique perspectives and experiences to collaborate and find ways to address issues such as voter’s rights, worker’s rights, healthcare, education and immigration.

Chamberlain says, “The purpose of [the Youth Congress] was getting young people to be transparent and making sure young people understood the history of these various areas of oppression during the Mississippi Summer Project.” As it relates to immigration and undocumented students’ perspectives, the professor continues, “There are other marginalized groups that may not necessarily have a voice, and we can be a voice for others as well.” She wanted students to be able to engage in tangible conversations and leave knowing how they were going to impact their local communities.

Particularly, the professor wants Black women to know they don’t have to be a victim of their own personal circumstances and to know they are strong. “Sometimes we don’t know how strong we are until we are put into a position where we need to show our strength,” she says.

Chamberlain has gone from teaching her dolls that, to students in the classroom and others in the community. What an evolution.


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