Remembering Professor Ray Gavins

Remembering Professor Ray Gavins May 30, 2016

ray GavinsBy Charles McKinney

Ray Gavins began making a difference in my life exactly five years before I actually took a class from him. This was because my mentor at Morehouse, Marcellus Barksdale, studied under Ray when he was a graduate student at Duke. Ray helped shape Dr. B’s exploration of the freedom struggle in Monroe, North Carolina – the home of Robert Williams. Ray Gavins – a man who’d been the first black student in the department of history at the University of Virginia from 1964 to 1970, would helped guide my mentor Dr. Barksdale through Duke. Barksdale finished his doctorate in 1977, making him only the second black student to finish in Duke’s history program. Eight years later, I started at Morehouse. Five years after that, I would be one of seven black graduate students (out of a class of twenty-one) entering that same program. Twenty years later, I would become the first African American faculty member to earn tenure in the History Department at Rhodes College. So goes the Circle of Academic Life…

When I arrived at Duke, I didn’t feel ready. I didn’t think I’d read the right books, I didn’t know the names of the right theorists, and I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag. In his own way, Ray reached out to me. He was a proud graduate of Virginia Union; he could hardly contain his glee whenever they would beat my beloved Morehouse in either football or basketball (“I see that Virginia Union defeated Morehouse last night” – big smile). The connection was intentional; Ray let me know that he too had attended an HBCU, and that our journeys weren’t all that dissimilar. He also modeled for others and me an unrepentant, unparalleled mastery of the historical literature. You will never be able to convince me that Ray Gavins did not read every book ever written about black life and history over the past sixty years. Nope. Nyet. I’m not having it. The man possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of African American history. And he expected us to follow suit. Hey ya’ll – remember the utter horror we felt the first time we saw one of Ray’s syllabi? The “suggested additional reading” section of the thing was 6-7 SINGLE SPACED PAGES. Seriously – who does that? Well, Ray Gavins, that’s who. Ray set an incredibly high bar for all of us, and it’s one of the reasons we can shine. Let’s be clear: by no means did I always meet Ray’s high standards. More than once, I would get a paper back with his meticulous hand writing splashed – no, placed – all over the place. Notes about structure, argument, phrasing and sources – dear God, the sources. Ray had every expectation that I could be excellent if I wanted to be so. That was up to me.

I don’t know that I’ve ever met another scholar as thorough and meticulous as Ray Gavins. At my dissertation defense, I weathered some heavyweight questions about theoretical frameworks and such from my chair, Bill Chafe, and from Charles Payne, who brought a sociologist’s eye to the historical enterprise. When it was Ray’s turn to go in, he said, “Chuck, if you would turn your attention to footnote fifty-four in chapter three…” Wait – is he getting ready to ask me about a FOOTNOTE?! Why, yes, yes he is. Ray talked about this footnote for the better part of what felt like three days before asking me to respond to his query. So, Ray’s exploration of my research began with footnote fifty-four in chapter three, and radiated out from there. Classic Ray.

Ray’s quiet demeanor masked an iron determination. He wrote history that was thoroughly researched and utterly fearless. White supremacy and the “coerced poverty and desolation” it wrought were frequent topics, alongside the power, vision and will of black women and men who stood in the face of Jim Crow. He was a pioneer and a warrior who wore his battle scars lightly, though I also know he struggled with high blood pressure. The battles always take their toll on us.

Several years ago, I wrote an article for the North Carolina Historical Review. The article went on to win an award – for which I’m thankful. But the highlight of that experience was sending a draft of that article to Ray, and getting a note back that said, “Chuck – this is solid work. Well done.” THAT was the true award, the one that matters

Those of us who studied with Ray Gavins, we are part of a legacy – a legacy of struggle, a legacy of survival, and perhaps most important – a legacy of excellence. Ray Gavins made me *possible*. As I said to some students in another venue, if I’ve moved anyone to understand the transformative nature of African American History, it’s because of people like Ray Gavins who played such a gigantic role in my life.

Rod Clare went to see Ray a few days before he died. His son was there, and the O’Jays were playing on the box – Ray loved the O’Jays. Rod whispered in Ray’s ear – telling him thank you for all that he’s done for us, and for the community at large. I’m so thankful to Rod for telling Ray what I have to hope he already knew – that we love and appreciate him.

Thanks, Ray – for so very much.

Charles McKinney, PhD, is an associate professor of history and the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee


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